Are we seeing a change in the weather or a change in climate?

Warm enough for you already?

It certainly was for me on Saturday, while spending part of the day up on the roof reinvigorating the oldest of the swamp coolers that make life bearable in the Spehar household during the summer months.

The day ended with a reddish glow on my skin and a sigh of relief that, as a result of my CPR (Cooler Preparedness Routine), the ancient contraption looked like it might make it through another season before needing replacement.

Somewhere between changing pads, adjusting the float, checking to see if the rubberized coating on the pan was still holding underlying metal together and repainting the exterior to give at least the look if not the performance of a newer unit, something more basic occurred to me.

Water experts have warned that this year might be as bad as or even worse than the 2002 drought in terms of runoff in our rivers and streams. In recent days, we’ve seen Colorado ski areas close earlier after an overall off season and poor snow conditions. Irrigators and other water users are discussing methods of stretching available water supplies through a hot summer and harvest seasons. Rafting companies are advertising family outings on calm waters instead of the thrill of whitewater excursions.

While this year’s diminished stream flows will be moderated by stored water from the previous wet year, longer term trends have water experts and businesses dependent upon precipitation worrying about a drier future. 

If this isn’t climate change, what is it?

A report earlier this month from the economic research firm Southwick Associates pointed out that recreational activities along the Colorado River and its tributaries generate about $17 billion in direct spending annually, contributing more than $1.6 billion in federal taxes and a similar amount to state coffers each year. 

In our state, more than 55 million tourists spent more than $10 billion during 2010 and were responsible for more than 144,000 jobs. Without that spending, according to Gov. John Hickenlooper, every Colorado family would have to pay an additional $364 in taxes annually.

Admittedly, the current dry year doesn’t constitute any more of a trend than a wet year in 2010-2011 gives reason to discount that something’s up, weather-wise.

But in May of last year, snowpack in Colorado’s high country was 135 percent of the 30-year average. Early this month, figures from the Natural Resources Conservation Service pegged it at 20 percent of average. Last year, skiers were schussing down runs at Arapahoe Basin on the Fourth of July. This year A-Basin closed May 6, a full month earlier than its usual shutdown.

A few years ago, I heard Pat O’Donnell, then president of the Aspen Skiing Company, talk about how his industry made all its profit in the last few weeks of the season ... that every lift ticket sold prior to that just paid the overhead. If warmer weather trimmed a week or ten days off each end of the season, O’Donnell said, there’d be no economic reason to operate the lifts. That’s why, he said, Aspen SkiCo was investing so much in efforts to deal with climate change.

He put it a little more strongly in a 2002 letter to then president George W. Bush.

“I am particularly concerned about the potential effects of climate change on our business,” O’Donnell wrote. “The best scientific studies available suggest that resort skiing in Colorado will virtually disappear by the year 2100.  This would be catastrophic for Colorado’s economy and for the tens of thousands of employees who depend on this industry for their livelihood.”

Ten years later, resorts in the National Ski Areas Association posted a 20-year low in visitation as average snowfall across the country was down 41 percent. Here in Colorado, celebration was in order as skier visits were down only 7.2 percent compared to 16 percent nationally. O’Donnell’s successors might worry about a 7.5 percent drop in the average number of days resorts nationwide were open last ski season and a 29 percent decline in skier visits heading into January.

That’s just one industry. Add in impacts to other tourism, such as rafting and fishing, impacts from lower agricultural yields, as well as increased fire danger, and the economic effects are substantial. Whatever political or scientific bias you bring to the climate change debate, these things are worth worrying about from a business standpoint.

Jim Spehar doesn’t ski anymore, but likes his water wet and plentiful. Your thoughts are welcome at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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