By Nick Keeler
Special to the Herald
What happens to Southwest Colorado when winter never shows up? Many of us were forced to deal with this reality over the past year or so. It is hard to imagine an industry not affected by historically dry weather conditions in this area. It is no secret Durango and the region’s economy is rooted and very much related to a beautiful natural landscape. Travelers expect to see flowing clear rivers in the summer and autumn months, and snow-covered peaks providing world-class winter recreation opportunities. If the snow does not show up, Durango and surrounding communities are left wondering if it will be there next year.
It all started in late 2017. The previous winter had been a good one, with above-average snowfall late into spring 2017. People were skiing and snowboarding in the San Juan backcountry into late July. Then the dreaded “La Niña” showed her dry and dusty face. 2018 was the driest year in this area since 2002, with the San Juan National Forest reporting our area received 40 percent of our typical snowfall. Some of you may recognize 2002 as the year the Missionary Ridge Fire occurred on the east side of U.S. Highway 550 and burned over toward Vallecito Reservoir. Obviously, wildfire is one major impact associated with lack of snow. On June 1, the 416 Fire was started near Mitchel Lakes Road, and the Burro Fire started near the Gold Run Trail on the Dolores Ranger District . While the fire was burning on those hot and windy afternoons, firefighters and hotshot crews were at the mercy of Mother Nature.
One side effect of a large fire near a populated area is flooding. When fire consumes fuels, the ground vegetation is gone, so there is nothing to hold down the earth when it rains. So there is much larger risk of flooding and debris flows in an area affected by fire. Highway 550 going north to Purgatory flooded multiple times this summer, along with ongoing threats to property and livelihood near Hermosa.
Water levels are down across the region, with Vallecito, Lemon and McPhee reservoirs noticeably low. The Animas River does not have its clear, green hue typically seen throughout the summer; ash from the 416 Fire has created a difficult environment for fish to survive south of the Hermosa drainage. Rafting season on the Animas is not as desirable with low and dirty water.
The San Juan National Forest and the Tres Rios BLM issued a Stage 3 Fire Closure for the first time in its history this summer. This, of course, causes tourists to question their summer trip to the Four Corners. When there are stories on the national and local news of choking smoke and forest closures, people will consider altering their travel plans. This affects Durango and surrounding communities as a whole. Less traffic coming through town means there are fewer tax dollars spent at our local businesses.
The good news is that we live in a resilient, supportive community. Although this was a tough year, our businesses and communities are recovering and are figuring out how best to deal with these types of situations in the future. The even better news is that there’s a 70 percent chance of having an El Niño winter for 2018-19. El Niño happens when ocean water temperatures are warmer than normal, bringing more precipitation, including in the form of snow. So, let’s all cross our fingers for some more of the white, fluffy stuff this winter. The occasional snow dance can’t hurt, either.
Nick Keeler is assistant director of visitor services with San Juan Mountains Association.