It's been a knuckle-chapping, post-holing, white-out freeze of a winter in the West, prompting many a global warming naysayer to crow about buying Al Gore a snow shovel. Not so fast though, weather weenies. A recent report based on long-term data from about 2,000 sites around the West shows that the region has warmed 70 percent more than the rest of the globe over the past five years, with temperature increases in the arid Colorado River Basin coming in at about twice the global average. The report's authors at the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization say we are already enjoying the fallout, including more frequent extreme heat waves, escalating drought and wildfires, the sudden decline of aspen trees, and the bark beetle epidemic.
Researchers studying California's Lake Tahoe, which has been warming for the last 40 years, predict the famously clear body of water may go murky with algae blooms and be taken over by invasive species within a decade. Arizona, meanwhile, kicked off an early wildfire season with a 200-acre blaze. Biologists in Montana warn that warming streams in the Big Hole River Valley, already low from irrigation, may push struggling grayling fish to the brink. Scientists in Wyoming say snow disappears from that state's mountains four to eight weeks earlier on average than it did 40 years ago, and that it will take a lot more than one booster snowpack year to recover reservoir levels there after a nearly decade-long drought.
Fear not, though. The Southern Nevada Water Authority has some unconventional ideas for dealing with future water shortages. The organization spent $750,000 on a report exploring a dozen ways to augment flows in the Colorado River, which supplies water for much of the thirsty Southwest. Options range from the vaguely post-apocalyptic (towing icebergs and giant water bladders across the Pacific Ocean from Alaska; piping fresh water from the Columbia River under the ocean to Southern California) to the borderline practical (nixing water-sucking salt cedar; financing desalination plants).
But the prospect of too much water, thanks to potentially torrential spring runoff from this year's epic snowpack, has also inspired some nail-biting. Forecasters have warned that flooding is possible in several Western states. And residents along Colorado's Parachute Creek are dealing with a 1 million-gallon frozen overflow of gas-drilling waste fluid melting into their irrigation water. If the spill is highly contaminated, state wildlife officials worry it could harm endangered fish such as the Colorado pike minnow and humpback chub 10 miles downstream in the Colorado River.
All this warming has helped spawn a watershed moment of a different sort. Looking to boost renewable energy in its portfolio, California's Pacific Gas & Electric utility signed contracts to buy 500 megawatts of solar power and options for another 400 megawatts - in total, enough energy to power about 300,000 homes - from five plants to be built in the Mojave Desert over the next decade. The Navajo Nation inked a deal with Boston-based Citizens Energy Corp. to build a 500 megawatt windfarm - the first such facility in Arizona - about 50 miles north of Flagstaff. European companies, meanwhile, have announced plans to build wind turbine factories in Pocatello, Idaho, and Butte, Mont. - creating hundreds of new jobs - and officially opened another in Colorado.
Richland, Wash., Idaho Falls, Idaho, and Lea County, N.M., are also hoping to land 1,000 temporary and 250 long-term energy jobs. State lawmakers and local officials in those places are rolling out economic incentives to entice the Paris-based company Areva to choose one of their communities as the site for a plant that will enrich uranium for nuclear power.
Even as the West warms, the ice-cold real estate market may be having a chilling effect on high-end resort development. Developers of the Ameya Preserve, a proposed 300-home "conservation" development in Montana, sold nearly half of their 9,700 acres to a neighboring Italian candy magnate who didn't want his view spoiled. The Yellowstone Club, an exclusive private resort south of Big Sky, Mont., went up for sale for a rumored $455 million before its founder pulled it back off the market. Owners of the Promontory Club, a 7,000-acre golf community near Park City, Utah, declared bankruptcy and blamed the subprime mortgage crisis and stagnating market for their inability to make payments on $275 million in loans. The club's bank, Credit Suisse, is now suing and seeking to foreclose on the sinking Tamarack Resort in Idaho, whose investors filed for bankruptcy in February.