A wild winter threatens summer profits in Colorado’s high country

The potential for a cascade of water may slow the flow of tourists to Lake City.


This story is a part of the ongoing Back 40 series, where High Country News reporters look at national trends and their impacts close to home.

In a dirt lot next to the medical center in Lake City—an idyllic mountain getaway in southwestern Colorado — a group of volunteers clad in gloves and sweatshirts filled 50-pound sandbags. The work is tedious but necessary to protect the town in case a catastrophic flood hits in the coming weeks, something officials fear is possible.

The group worked around a machine called the “Sandbagger.” As if pulling from metal udders, the volunteers milked sand into large sacks. After each was filled, they plopped the bags on a line of wood pallets. Soon they’ll be moved around town to fortify important electricity infrastructure and buildings like the Hinsdale County Museum, which holds historic artifacts from the 1800s. If the town floods, the sandbags will spare the town’s infrastructure from much of the damage, and allow residents to evacuate through established escape routes. 

  • A sign advises visitors to sign up for flood alerts.

    Jessica Kutz/High Country News
  • Volunteers, comprised of fire and police department employees from a nearby town work to fill sand bags in Lake City, Colorado.

    Jessica Kutz
  • A volunteer hauls sand bags to a wooden pallet.

    Jessica Kutz/High Country News
  • Avalanche debris blocks Henson Creek; officials fear it could lead to problems when the snow melts.

    Jessica Kutz/High Country News

The threat of flooding has unfortunate timing. Memorial Day weekend is a financial tossup for mountain towns in the Colorado Rockies. It’s either the start of a lucrative summer season, or a waiting game for the snow to thaw and warmer temperatures to arrive. On a good year, people from the Front Range cities of Denver and Fort Collins arrive in droves for their first camp out of the season, to hike trails that have sat in hibernation over the winter months and to four-wheel drive on backcountry roads. But every week that good weather fails to materialize, towns like Lake City, which mainly caters to summer recreationists, see their revenues diminish.

That’s why the potential for flooding is so troubling for residents. Located in Hinsdale County, one of the most remote counties in the Lower 48, the town is bracing for another natural disaster after a near-record snow year set off a series of avalanches, including one that barreled through the sheriff’s house, and filled the creek that feeds into Lake City with hundreds of trees and debris. Now, the fear is that debris may block the stream’s natural flow, causing it to burst and send a cascade of water into the town of approximately 400 full-time residents. 

But perhaps what Lake City residents and town leaders fear even more than a flood, is that tourists will cancel their visits. Lake City is a very driven tourist community and (what) will harm the community more than anything is if people stay away,” said Nicolle Rosecrans, a coordinator from Voluntary Organizations Active In Disaster, an organization that works to mitigate the impacts of natural disasters. 

Increasingly mountain communities are seeing the effects climate change is having on their economies. Last year, when the 416 Fire hit the southwestern corner of the state, Silverton, Colorado, connected to Lake City by the Alpine Loop, a four-wheel dirt road popular with visitors, saw a “tsunami of lodging cancellations for all the summer season,” DeAnne Gallegos, executive director of the Silverton Area Chamber of Commerce said at the time. Businesses struggled for the rest of the summer season, as visitor numbers plummeted. 

This winter was an anomaly: Lake City and other towns in the high country haven’t seen this much snow in decades, and the avalanche season has been attributed to a combination of weather patterns that led to unstable snowpack. But as, Dr. Kelly Elder, a research hydrologist at the U.S. Forest Service told 5280 magazine in March: “This is a weather issue, but climate change predictions suggest increased variability in weather.” In other words, we should expect more crazy snow years and severe droughts — a combination that pummels places like Lake City with avalanches some winters and, as is playing out now, can lead to dangerous floods in the spring. 

According to Caroline Mitchell, the Lake City town manager, the town will continue to prep for summer visitors as normal. “We are a tourist-based economy in a lot of ways,” she said. “It is an adorable town, we have a great historical district and shops that are starting to open up.”

Russ Brown paints an eagle at his art gallery on Silver Street.
Jessica Kutz/High Country News

One of the few businesses open year-round is the Russ Brown Gallery. The owner, Brown, an older man with bright blue eyes, has an eclectic collection of images, ranging from planes and spaceships to exotic animals, and  quintessential Colorado landscapes. Inspired by this winter’s events, he’s begun painting an avalanche series depicting clouds of snow running down the sides of mountains, which he thinks will be popular with visitors. But he too is worried about what the weather conditions will do to the economy. “Why would you go to Lake City?” he imagines tourists thinking. “They’ve got avalanches up there and the roads are closed.” 

Just a few blocks from Brown’s shop, pallets of sandbags were being dropped off near the creek. Wet snowflakes fell while shop owners prepped for the business they hope will come. 

Jessica Kutz is an editorial fellow for High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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