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

High Country News Classifieds
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Deschutes Land Trust, based in Bend, Oregon, seeks a collaborative and strategic Executive Director to lead us in pursuing our mission: to conserve and care...
  • DEVELOPMENT MANAGER
    Job Title: Development Manager Supervisor: Senior Director of Development Effective Date: May 17, 2021 Job Status: Full-time (40 hours/week), exempt Location: Within the Colorado Plateau...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    - The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region - The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful,...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Job Title: Executive Director Reports To: Board of Directors Compensation: $75,000 to $80,000, plus generous benefits and paid leave. Funding for relocation expenses available. Classification:...
  • WATER DIRECTOR
    Applications will be accepted on a rolling basis. Application review will begin on April 2, 2021 and will continue until the position has been filled....
  • CLIMATE JUSTICE FELLOW
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks applicants for a climate justice fellowship. The fellowship...
  • VIRGINIA SPENCER DAVIS FELLOWSHIP
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is offering a fellowship for early-career journalists interested in...
  • COLORADO WILD PUBLIC LANDS VIDEO CONTEST
    Please submit your video of 30 seconds or less, taken on public lands, to [email protected] by May 15th for a chance to win in one...
  • WMAN NETWORK COORDINATOR
    WESTERN MINING ACTION NETWORK (WMAN) CONTRACT OPPORTUNITY CLOSING DATE: Feb. 19, 2021 WMAN is seeking a team member to coordinate the various network activities to...
  • FRIENDS OF THE INYO IS HIRING TRAIL AMBASSADORS FOR THE SUMMER OF 2021
    Friends of the Inyo's Trail Ambassadors (TAs) support the Inyo, Sierra, & Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forests and other partners by providing positive public service, outreach, interpretation,...
  • LAND & CABIN ON CO/ UT LINE
    18 ac w/small solar ready cabin. Off grid, no well. Great RV location. Surrounded by state wildlife area and nat'l parks.
  • MANAGER PERMACULTURE LANDSCAPE CONTRACTOR
    Permaculture / Landscape Company Manager / Site Lead Red Ant Works, Inc. - 20+ year landscape construction and horticultural care company seeks manager and site...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau with lodge, river trip and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance is looking for a passionate, dynamic, organized, and technology-savvy communications professional to help grow our membership and presence in the Four...
  • ENERGY AND CLIMATE PROGRAM ASSOCIATE
    San Juan Citizens Alliance seeks an Energy and Climate Program Associate to focus on public outreach, education and organizing to advance campaigns to mitigate climate...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    This position provides professional real estate services and is responsible for managing and completing real estate projects utilizing a project management database that is designed...
  • WILDFIRE MITIGATION SPECIALIST
    The Wildfire Mitigation Specialist is responsible for delivering wildfire risk mitigation information, recommendations and programmatic resources to wildland urban interface homeowners, community members and partners....
  • DEVELOPMENT POSITIONS
    Thorne Nature Experience is hiring for a Development Director and Senior Individual Giving Manager. Individuals will work collaboratively with Thorne's Executive Director to develop and...
  • SENIOR PROGRAM MANAGER, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION & ENERGY
    The National Parks Conservation Association, a 100-year-old nonprofit advocacy organization and the nation's leading voice for national parks seeks a Senior Program Manager, Landscape Conservation...
  • BACKCOUNTRY AND FRONTCOUNTRY STEWARDSHIP CREW MEMBERS
    The San Juan Mountains Association (SJMA) is hiring a crew of ambassadors to work in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service to educate visitors on...