Steamboat Springs man kills 400-pound bear after it entered his home
A Colorado man had a rude awaking early Saturday morning when a roughly 400-pound bear flipped the lever doorknob to his home and rummaged through some dog food, Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials said Monday.
The homeowner, Ken Mauldin, grabbed a gun and shot the bear multiple times until it collapsed and died just after 2 a.m., said Rachel Gonzalez, spokesperson for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Nobody was injured, she said. Officers removed the animal from the house, located in the ski-resort town of Steamboat Springs. The couple had a legal right to shoot the bear if they felt threatened, Gonzalez said.
Colorado has roughly 12,000 bears and break-ins aren’t uncommon in Rocky Mountain towns. People shooting and killing bears in self-defense, however, is rare, said Gonzalez.
This particular male bear was not tagged and the department does not know if it was involved in other break-ins, she said.
“Steamboat, that area, they’ve been dealing with bears getting into homes all summer long,” said Gonzalez. “It’s not impossible that this bear learned the behavior from another bear.”
Residents of Steamboat Springs are warned by the agency to lock doors and windows, secure their trash and recycling in bear-proof bins, and even take down bird-feeders to prevent these kind of confrontations.
“These types of incidents are preventable,” said Gonzalez. “Bears are very smart. Once they learn that it’s easy to access food in a certain area, they are going to keep doing it.”
Obstacles mount for Uinta Basin Railway as lawsuit takes aim at public funding
There comes a phase in almost any large-scale, controversial project on public or private land when the questions arise and the lawsuits begin. The proposed Uinta Basin Railway is no different.
Everything about the venture is large-scale, from its nationwide scope to potential global impacts. Although the UBR, at 88 miles, is considered a “short line,” it would create a new link in the oil supply chain connecting the vast, fracked-oil fields in northeast Utah’s Uinta Basin to the national rail network, passing through Glenwood Canyon on its way to the refineries on the Gulf Coast. The UBR, approved by the Federal Surface Transportation Board in late 2021, would provide enough transportation capacity to increase oil production in the Uinta Basin from between 80,000 and 90,000 barrels per day currently to 350,000 B/D — essentially quadrupling output.
The increase in CO2 from expanding Uinta Basin production would come at a time when scientists around the world are sounding an alarm. In 2022, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that global greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2025, drop by half by 2030 with net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050 to avoid catastrophic and possibly irreversible climate changes.
The type of oil found in the Uinta Basin is tricky to transport and difficult to refine. Called “waxy crude” because of its high paraffin content, it solidifies at about 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The Utah Department of Environmental Quality states that it must be “heated in the field and transported in insulated trucks.”
As explained by Adam Sayres, president of Axia Energy II, which operates in the Uinta Basin, Uinta crude is like Chapstick. He gave a detailed presentation to the Board of Trustees of Utah’s School & Institutional Trust Lands Administration in May 2018, stating that the crude is liquid underground at about 225 degrees, but once it hits the surface, it has to be kept in heated tanks at 180 degrees. Then, it’s loaded onto insulated trucks that head for Salt Lake City refineries, about 150 miles away.
According to Matt Sands, host of the Mineral Rights Podcast, in 2019, those refineries had a total production capacity for 189,000 B/D but only about 88,000 B/D for Uinta Basin waxy crude. Salt Lake City was declared a nonattainment area by the Environmental Protection Agency for air-quality standards twice in one decade — in 2009 for fine particulate matter and in 2015 for ozone — which proved problematic for those wanting to increase Uinta Basin waxy-crude production. “Production has had to mirror the refining capacity,” Sayres told the board of Utah’s School & Institutional Trust Lands Administration.
Bryce Bird, director of the Utah Division of Air Quality, told Aspen Journalism that ozone levels have not improved and emissions from all refining operations are capped due to air-quality concerns. “Without getting permit changes or offsetting emissions, the refineries cannot increase production,” he said.
Wendy Park, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation group opposed to the UBR, said Uinta Basin oil producers are locked into the Salt Lake City refinery market, which gives the refineries a distinct advantage. “The Salt Lake City refineries can ask for a discount because there isn’t much competition for this waxy crude oil, (since companies) can’t get it to other customers,” she said. “The increase in markets for Uinta Basin crude would allow oil producers to charge higher prices, which would spur increased drilling.”
The only way to increase production in the Uinta Basin is to refine the waxy crude somewhere else. Proponents of the UBR say the best way to do that is to link the Uinta Basin by rail to the national rail network, near Price, Utah, and take that crude to Gulf Coast refineries that can handle it.
Oil trains would go through Colorado
The UBR promises to add from three to 10 oil trains daily to the national railway running through Colorado. The trains would share the tracks with Amtrak and freight haulers, winding through Glenwood Canyon and up through the Moffat Tunnel before descending to Denver and then east and south. The waxy crude would be shipped in heated unit cars — approximately 110 cars per train with the capacity to carry about 642 barrels in each car.
Communities along the Colorado route, including the city of Glenwood Springs, have written to U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper against the UBR, citing concerns about air quality, wildlife, water and public safety. Glenwood Springs Mayor Jonathan Godes told Aspen Journalism that an accident or spill in Glenwood Canyon would be disastrous all the way to the Sea of Cortez. “To say it’s a far-fetched possibility, I think, is to ignore reality,” he said. “If that waxy crude that’s heated in order to stay viscous spills into our watershed and into the Colorado River, it would be a massive cleanup where they would have to remove tons of soil and debris.”
Eagle County officials, who are party to a lawsuit challenging the Federal Surface Transportation Board’s December approval of the UBR, have also voiced concerns that the long-dormant Tennessee Pass rail line would be revived as an alternate route for the oil trains should the national rail network through Colorado — particularly the Moffat Tunnel — become crowded.
Texas-based Rio Grande Pacific Corp, which plans to build and operate the UBR, also owns Colorado, Midland & Pacific Railway, which, in late 2020, attempted to lease a portion of the Tennessee Pass line from Union Pacific for possible commuter/passenger service and freight options, and applied for fast-track approval from the Federal Surface Transportation Board. Rio Grande Pacific Corp made a point of stating that it “has no plan to operate oil trains over Tennessee Pass.” Rio Grande Pacific Corp even went so far as to amend its plan a week before the Federal Surface Transportation Board made its decision, requesting restrictions on hauling crude oil, coal and hazardous materials in the proposed lease.
But Eagle County Commissioner Matt Scherr is not convinced. “There is no way they can commit to that,” he told Aspen Journalism. “They are not allowed to officially make a promise that [they] will not do some sort of activity on a line that has a general practice of moving freight.”
The Federal Surface Transportation Board denied the application — and, by extension, Rio Grande Pacific Corp’s proposed amendment — on March 25, 2021, for a variety of reasons, including public opposition and Rio Grande Pacific Corp’s apparent rush to get it done. But the decision left the door open for Colorado, Midland & Pacific Railway to reapply with a more comprehensive impact review and a full application process. “So, the proposal could come back,” said Park.
Lawsuit alleges misuse of public funds
The Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, which spearheaded this iteration of the UBR, was created in 2014, initially with only six rural eastern Utah counties — Uintah, Duchesne, Carbon, Daggett, Emery and San Juan counties. The coalition’s mission, according to its website, is to allow “members to build essential regional infrastructure elements that span across county lines” for the economic benefit of the area. In 2017, the coalition expanded to include Sevier County.
According to a timeline provided in a Utah judge’s order issued in a pending lawsuit, the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition first applied for a $30 million grant for the UBR project from Utah’s Permanent Community Impact Fund Board on Feb. 1, 2018. The board oversees the Utah Permanent Community Impact Fund, which holds federal mineral lease money allocated to the state from oil and natural gas royalties.
Those funds are mandated by state and federal law to go to counties and municipalities on the front lines of mineral extraction, and the operable federal statute charges state legislatures to direct funds toward the “planning, construction and maintenance of public facilities, and provision of public service.”
Typically, those communities are rural, and many depend on federal mineral lease money to weather the boom-and-bust cycles of the industry. “During a boom, they need more police, hospitals, emergency services, schools, and teachers,” Park said. “And after the workers leave, communities experience a dip in their tax revenue. So this is a way to help them.”
The Seven County Infrastructure Coalition wanted the money to “complete preconstruction design and permitting for a rail line from northeastern Utah into northwestern Colorado” that would connect the UBR to the national rail network. (An early proposal for the UBR had tracks running east toward Craig, Colorado.) The Permanent Community Impact Fund Board rejected the application because it was incomplete and did not include an important feasibility study. The Seven County Infrastructure Coalition submitted a new application for $27.9 million on Sept. 13, 2018. At a Seven County Infrastructure Coalition meeting on Oct. 11, 2018, the group’s lawyer said the railroad was, based on two feasibility studies, “viable but not at the rate of return that would entice private industry” and recommended that it be funded by a “public body”.
The Permanent Community Impact Fund Board did not grant the full $27 million, however, due to questions from the Utah attorney general’s office regarding the legality of using Permanent Community Impact Fund Board funds for the railway.
An exchange between the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition’s attorney and then-Assistant Attorney General Alison Garner began with an Oct. 17, 2018, letter from Garner, questioning how the railway project would fit with federal and state laws governing the use of public funds. Those concerns included “whether the proposed project is truly a public project as defined under federal and state law, whether expending restricted mineral lease funds outside of Utah is consistent with federal and state law, and whether the proposed project constitutes improper economic development.” In a response letter, dated Oct. 23, 2018, the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition argued that the law grants local jurisdictions wide latitude in determining how to best invest mineral lease funds, and that the UBR application met applicable criteria.
“Through the [Seven County Infrastructure Coalition], local Utah officials have selected rail as the best solution, and the political preferences of California environmentalists should not be allowed to prevail,” says the letter, which asked the attorney general’s office to withdraw its letter and “invited” officials instead to write another letter in support of the Permanent Community Impact Fund Board application.
Garner responded a week later with similar concerns, including the legality of using public funds for “mere economic development.” She specifically cited part of the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition’s application that stated “the ultimate goal of the [Uinta Rail Line] is to provide prospective Uinta Basin rail shippers with the lowest cost transportation option between the Uinta Basin and national markets” and “the winners would be the producers, royalty recipients … and taxing authorities.”
At a Nov. 8, 2018, Permanent Community Impact Fund Board meeting, the AG’s office reiterated its concerns, prompting the fund’s board to grant only $6.5 million for “engineering and other technical studies.” Then, between November 2018 and June 2019, the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition chose Drexel Hamilton Infrastructure Partners, now known as the DHIP Group, an asset management firm, for a “public-private partnership to finance and develop the railway.” The DHIP Group signed a memorandum of understanding with Texas-based Rio Grande Pacific Corporation to “operate and maintain” the UBR.
In June 2019, the Permanent Community Impact Fund Board approved the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition’s application for the remaining $21.4 million for Phase II of the project despite concerns from a Permanent Community Impact Fund Board member about “the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition’s rush to fund and complete the project given its size and complexity, the lack of a robust procurement process to ensure the project‘s success, the speculative nature of the return on investment, and the potentially risky use of public funds,” as described in the judge’s order.
In August 2020, the Center for Biological Diversity and Living Rivers filed suit in Utah’s 3rd District Court in Salt Lake County, against the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, the Permanent Community Impact Fund Board, and the Utah Department of Workforce Services’ Housing and Community Development Division for possible illegal misuse of public funds. Park represents the plaintiffs.
“Our claim is that it violated the state legislature’s and Congress’ intent for those funds to be used to alleviate the impacts of mineral development in communities that have mining and drilling on public lands,” she said. “Instead, the funds are being used to promote and increase fossil fuel development with the goal of building the Uinta Basin Railroad.”
In early December 2020, Uintah County, Duchesne County and the Uintah Transportation Special Service District filed motions to intervene on behalf of the defendants. Officials representing these jurisdictions oppose the suit on the argument that the railway falls under their responsibilities for the safety and welfare of their citizens. The counties have stated that oil production will increase in the basin with or without the railroad, and argue that moving oil by train is safer and cleaner than using tanker trucks.
Uintah County was defiant, stating that it is the county’s responsibility — not the petitioners’ — to determine whether the UBR is an appropriate way to spend mineral lease funds.
The Uintah Transportation Special Service District, almost entirely dependent on Permanent Community Impact Fund Board funds, accused the petitioners of false concerns for oil-and-gas-impacted communities. The Uintah Transportation Special Service District stated that the environmental groups suing to block the use of Permanent Community Impact Fund Board funds exist primarily to stop extraction of oil and gas. The“intent and purpose” of the litigation, the Uintah Transportation Special Service District argues, is to “deprive local communities of the very resources needed to provide vital services to residents.”
By the time of a hearing in the case last August, a representative of the Utah’s attorney general’s office provided a more favorable assessment of the UBR funding’s legal prospects. According to a Salt Lake Tribune article on the hearing, Assistant Attorney General Daniel Widdison said that investing in the UBR aligns with the Mineral Leasing Act by making oil extraction safer and helping other area industries.
“If this project can get trucks off the road, if it can create a higher viability or sustainability for other industries in the area or, frankly, if it can make extraction of the oil safer, any of those would constitute alleviation of mineral extraction,” Widdison said, according to the Tribune. “Recognizing … that mineral extraction is an inevitability.”
By the time the suit was filed, the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition had spent about $12.5 million on “preconstruction planning,” according to the judge’s timeline. By January 2021, total spending of the Permanent Community Impact Fund Board funds reached about $21 million.
Prior to March 2021, Utah law regarding use of Permanent Community Impact Fund Board funds required that the money go to front-line communities in need and included multiple provisions stating that the funds be used to alleviate the impacts of resource development. But between the time the suit was filed and the initial evidentiary hearing, state legislators changed the law.
2021’s Senate Bill 176, titled Mineral Lease Fund Amendments, replaced language stating that the funds shall be used “for the alleviation of social, economic and public finance impacts resulting from the development of natural resources in this state” with “planning, construction and maintenance of public facilities, and provision of public service.” Lawmakers also added a subsection, defining the word and intention of “planning,” to include studies, analyses, plans and surveys among other changes.
The amendment applies retroactively and includes the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition’s grant application. The plaintiffs have accused the respondents of “gamesmanship.”
In September, 3rd District Court Judge Adam Mow ruled against the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment, finding that sufficient evidence had been presented to establish “a genuine issue of material fact” as to whether the railway would mitigate the burden on local communities caused by resource extraction.
Mow also ruled for more discovery, pertaining to one of the plaintiffs’ concerns having to do with what the impacts would be if the UBR was allowed to continue. Park puts it this way: “Essentially, the court said there was little evidence showing what harms would result from funding the railway, so it ordered that discovery continue on that issue,” she said. “But, by that time, discovery was already closed, so there was no real opportunity to develop evidence on that point.”
The most recent hearing occurred May 25. Park said if the judge rules in favor of the plaintiffs, remedies include returning the money to the Utah Permanent Community Impact Fund. The judge plans to have a decision by late July.
Federal Surface Transportation Boarddecision prompts second lawsuit
The Seven County Infrastructure Coalition filed a petition for UBR approval from the Federal Surface Transportation Board in May 2020, and the Permanent Community Impact Fund Board funds paid for ICF, an environmental consulting firm, to write the environmental impact statement upon which the Federal Surface Transportation Board relied to make its decision.
The Federal Surface Transportation Board gave the green light to the UBR in December. Federal Surface Transportation Board Board Chair Martin Oberman cast the sole dissenting vote, stating that the “environmental impacts outweigh the transportation merits.” Oberman’s lengthy opinion questions the board’s evaluation of the downstream impacts and the overall contribution to climate change. He also cited the financial viability of the UBR given volatile oil prices and the shifting fossil fuel industry.
The same conservation groups that sued in Utah district court filed a second lawsuit on Feb. 11, 2022, in federal court in Washington, D.C., challenging the Federal Surface Transportation Board’s environmental review and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s biological assessment.
Nathanial Hunt, outside counsel for Eagle County, told Aspen Journalism in an email that the board “failed to adequately review the environmental impacts of the project, failed to adequately determine whether the project is needed, financially viable, and in the public interest.” The court combined the cases, due to similarities, on Feb. 14.
Park told Aspen Journalism in an email that the case is in its early stages. “We are now reviewing the administrative record and the parties will propose a briefing schedule to the court toward the end of [June],” she said.
The proposed cost of the preferred Whitmore Park route for the UBR is $1.5 billion for 88 miles of track. The DHIP Group, as part of the public-private partnership including Seven County Infrastructure Coalition and Rio Grande Pacific Corporation, has agreed to finance the project with a $1.5 billion commitment.
Construction of the rail line also hinges on commitments from shippers and refineries before it can move forward, and those commitments depend on increased production at a time when the ability to transport significant amounts of the basin’s waxy crude to markets outside Salt Lake City is limited. Mark Hemphill, senior vice president of Rio Grande Pacific Corporation, told ENR Mountain States in October 2019, that the UBR needs customers. “A billion-and-a-half-dollar railroad cannot be built on an ‘If you build it, they will come’ basis,” he said. (Hemphill did not respond to Aspen Journalism’s requests for comment.)
But refineries are reluctant to climb aboard the UBR until there is more oil coming out of the basin. Jim Finley of Finley Resources, the largest crude oil producer in the basin at 28,000 B/D, told the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition at its Oct. 22 meeting that it’s a catch-22. “In order to increase the volume, we have to have transportation, and in order to have improved transportation, we have to have the volume,” Finley said, according to the meeting’s minutes.
It is difficult to say whether railroad proponents have secured the necessary commitments; Finley did not respond to Aspen Journalism’s requests for comment. In fact, he failed to show up for two scheduled telephone interviews. DHIP Group representatives also did not respond to requests for comment.
Tom Shaw, a Houston-based independent energy consultant, told Aspen Journalism that the UBR and similar projects are caught between the high price of oil and the urgent need to reduce fossil fuel extraction and use due to climate change. “That’s the whole issue with oil and gas right now,” he said. “Oil prices are at a historic level, but there is very little investment in the sector because of climate change.” That means higher prices at the pump. “If you can’t drill for it, you can’t produce it,” he said. “And if you can’t produce it, you can’t sell it.”
In order to proceed, UBR still needs final authorization from Utah’s Ashley National Forest for the 12 miles of tracks that would run through an inventoried roadless area. Those tracks would closely follow U.S. Highway 191, but approving the railroad through the roadless area could prompt an additional legal challenge. Look for more on that facet of the proposal in an Aspen Journalism article later this summer.
Amy Hadden Marsh is a freelance journalist and longtime resident of the Roaring Fork Valley. Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative organization covering the environment in collaboration with The Aspen Times and Vail Daily. For more, go to AspenJournalism.org.
Early peak runoff for Western Slope rivers
Rivers in western Colorado have already peaked for the season, creating challenging conditions for reservoir managers and rafting companies.
Fueled by spring windstorms that deposited snow-devouring dust on the mountain snowpack, most streams saw their peak flows between May 19 and 21 for this year, according to data from the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center.
On May 19, the Crystal River near Avalanche Creek hit its high mark for the spring at about 1,870 cubic feet per second. On that day in the southwest part of the state, the San Miguel River at Placerville peaked at 823 cfs; and the Yampa River in Steamboat Springs hit its high mark of 2,915 cfs.
On May 20, the Roaring Fork River just above its confluence with the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs peaked at 4,450 cfs; the Eagle River at Dotsero peaked at about 4,950 cfs.
On May 21, just upstream of major agriculture diversions to the Grand Valley at a location known as Cameo, the Colorado River peaked at about 10,730 cfs. At the Utah state line, streamflows peaked at 16,130 cfs.
The peak streamflow volumes for these locations were within the range of what’s considered normal.
Although there may be a second, smaller peak in coming days as summer temperatures return, forecasters say most of the snow below 11,000 feet has already melted out, meaning not enough is left to fuel a bigger peak than the one that has already happened.
For several locations — the Roaring Fork at Glenwood, the Crystal, the San Miguel and the Colorado at Cameo — the peak came so early that it was outside the window of what’s considered normal. The rest of the locations — the Yampa, the Eagle and the Colorado at the Utah state line — were inside the normal range, although on the earlier side.
These conditions can be partly attributed to dust on snow, which causes the snowpack to melt earlier and faster.
“Dust on snow has played a pretty big role this year,” said Cody Moser, a senior hydrologist with the CBRFC. “It really allows the energy from the sun to get absorbed into the snowpack much more than if you have this white, clean snow surface.”
According to Jeff Derry, executive director of the Silverton-based Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies, a total of 11 dust events occurred in April and May. A total of six or seven occur during a normal year.
This spring has been unusually windy, which has kicked up dust from northern New Mexico and Arizona and deposited it on Colorado’s snow-capped peaks; the San Juan Mountains, in the southwestern part of the state, were the hardest hit. Each year, the center ranks the severity of the dust storms.
“A number of those were really nasty events,” Derry said. “This is the first time since 2013 that we have said it’s a severe dust year.”
Early runoff brings challenges
The early runoff is a challenge for Blazing Adventures, a rafting company based in Aspen and Snowmass that runs trips on the Roaring Fork River. According to owner Vince Nichols, they usually try to run the Roaring Fork through the Fourth of July before heading to other sections of the Arkansas and Colorado rivers that see higher flows later in the summer. This year, it will be closer to mid-June, he said.
“It’s certainly been a strange runoff this year,” Nichols said. “We came out of the ski season with some optimism, but when we mixed in those high winds and dust, it ran off a lot faster than we were anticipating.”
The early runoff could also have implications for reservoir managers, who may have to begin releasing water earlier in the summer to meet downstream calls. A call happens when a senior water right is not receiving its full amount of water and junior upstream water users must cut back in order to send water to the senior user downstream.
This may end up being the situation with Green Mountain Reservoir, which is on the Blue River, is operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and is affected by the call from the Shoshone hydropower plant in Glenwood Canyon. The call comes on most years in midsummer, but this year, it may be earlier.
“I may have to start making storage releases earlier,” said Victor Lee, an engineer with the Bureau of Reclamation. “That’s pretty typical of dry years, but with this early runoff, the call might come much earlier than what I expected.”
The same may happen at Ruedi Reservoir, on the Fryingpan River. Ruedi is also operated by the Bureau of Reclamation and is affected by the call at Cameo, which comes on most summers.
Although Ruedi had been forecast to fill by the skin of its teeth this year, Bureau of Reclamation hydrologist Tim Miller said he now thinks it will end up 1,000 to 6,000 acre-feet short. He said he will continue releasing the minimum required flow of 110 cfs until downstream calls come on and he has to release more stored water.
“I always like to point out that our snowpack is a natural reservoir and if that reservoir releases its water earlier than what’s normal, you can kind of imagine the disruptions and problems that occur,” Derry said. “It makes reservoir management a little bit more complicated if you have the water coming down earlier than what you expected.”
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with the Vail Daily and other Swift newspapers. For more, go to AspenJournalism.org.
State agency affirms Holy Cross Energy’s ambitious clean energy plan
Holy Cross Energy received state verification for its ambitious clean energy plan this month, which confirmed that the company’s strategy to reach a 100% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 is both accurate and attainable.
Holy Cross Energy created its latest clean energy plan in 2020, when the company’s board decided to expand upon its 2017 goal of 70% carbon reduction by 2030 and go for a full transition to renewable energy sources over the course of a decade.
President and CEO Bryan Hannegan said that the plan they submitted for state approval is currently the most ambitious in Colorado, and is at the forefront of utility companies transitioning to renewables in the country.
“It’s only one of six such plans of its type anywhere in the United States,” Hannegan said. “By that, I mean the level of ambition, 100%, and also how quickly, 2030. That’s eight years from now. That’s yesterday in electric utility planning terms, and so it means that we have to move at a pace and a scale that’s going to make a difference and hopefully inspire others to act in accordance.”
Holy Cross Energy voluntarily submitted the plan to the state’s Air Pollution Control Division in December and received the news this month that the emissions reduction calculations in the plan are verified and the result is a 99% emissions reduction by 2030.
Hannegan said being a leader in the renewable energy space means that the plans Holy Cross officials are coming up with are made up of original ideas and approaches, many that are the first of their kind. To have a legitimate third party sign off on the feasibility of the plan is an important marker that they are moving in the right direction.
“That renewable energy goal that we developed was something that we didn’t see an analog for. It was something that we really needed to pioneer,” Hannegan said. “We relentlessly take great ideas and try to bring them home, creating a culture of innovation and trying to push the boundaries, because we know we’re going to need to be the first ones to get there to meet our goals.”
The push for moving entirely to renewables is not motivated by just the rising impacts of climate change. It also presents a financial benefit to both the company and its customers.
Hannegan said that the conventional wisdom that renewables are more expensive than fossil fuel resources is no longer true, thanks to technological improvements that have increased the efficiency of renewables while lowering cost levels. Utility companies no longer have to choose between economics and sustainability, because the two now go hand in hand.
“You look at the gasoline pump and the price of crude oil at over $100, and then you compare that volatility in those prices to what we get when we contract with a wind farm for 15 years at a fixed price that doesn’t fluctuate based on world events or supply chain issues or inflationary expenses,” Hannegan said. “So not only are we saving money — and we’ve saved over $15 million in the last several years — we’re also providing more stable power supply costs, which makes up roughly about half of what all of our members pay on their monthly electricity bill.”
As the primary energy provider in Eagle County, Holy Cross Energy also feels the responsibility to be a leader in the county’s goal to reduce overall emissions by 50% by 2030. Electrical consumption currently accounts for about a third of total emissions, and Hannegan said that leading with renewable electricity will provide a sustainable alternative for other sources of greenhouse gas.
“The easiest way for us to do that as a society is to have clean electricity, and then use that clean electricity as the fuel to replace the oil, the natural gas, propane, all the other stuff that emits carbon,” Hannegan said. “So we’ve got to get our job done early so that everybody else’s job becomes a whole lot easier.”
Hannegan hopes that the clean energy plan that Holy Cross Energy is undertaking will serve as a template for other utility companies, and will provide a working example of how ambitious renewable energy goals can be both achievable and profitable. He said that the decision to shift originally came from listening to consumers’ demand for renewables, and that utility companies around the country should be listening and responding to the values of their own customers.
“I believe — and you see this from the evidence of utility commitments like these all around the country — that there’s no reason electric utilities can’t pivot to provide the clean energy that their consumers want,” Hannegan said. “I think the biggest thing that’s driving us forward is that our communities are speaking with one really loud voice and saying this is what we want, and to the extent that other communities want that they should raise their voices as well and work with their local providers to make sure that it happens.”
No explosives found in vehicle that closed I-70 in Silverthorne
A report of possible explosives in a vehicle closed Interstate 70 between the Eisenhower Tunnel and the town of Silverthorne on Saturday afternoon.
The Jefferson County bomb squad responded, but it was Summit County’s Systemwide Mental Assessment Response Team — otherwise known as the SMART team — which would ultimately provide the specialized knowledge needed for the incident.
Trooper Jacob Best with the Colorado State Patrol said the initial report of explosives proved to be untrue, and was suspected to have occurred as a result of a driver suffering from a severe anxiety disorder or dementia.
“The first safety patrol got on scene because they saw a vehicle pulled over on the side of the road, and the driver was outside of the vehicle, so our courtesy patrol/safety patrol came to check on him,” Best said. “As they were trying to figure out what was going on, that’s when this male party indicated that he was informed by a female party that there was an explosive or incendiary device inside of his vehicle.”
Best said the statement was assumed to be legitimate in the moment, as “he was well convinced, and provided a lot of detailed information initially, so out of an abundance of caution, we treated it as such,” and shut down the interstate.
The Jefferson County bomb squad inspected the vehicle and found no evidence of explosives.
Best said the Summit County’s Systemwide Mental Assessment Response Team responded quickly.
“Our troopers are well informed that, in Summit County, if there’s an issue that they suspect may be a mental health issue, they are to request the Summit County SMART Team members,” Best said. “They’re usually on duty, or on call, and they respond right away.”
The interstate was closed for about 90 minutes.
Colorado is examining water speculation, and finding it’s ‘all the problems’ in one
ECKERT — Melting snow and flowing irrigation ditches mean spring has finally arrived at the base of Grand Mesa in western Colorado.
Harts Basin Ranch, a 3,400-acre expanse of hayfields and pasture just south of Cedaredge, in Delta County, is coming back to life with the return of water.
Twelve hundred of the ranch’s acres are irrigated with water from Alfalfa Ditch, diverted from Surface Creek, which flows down the south slopes of the Grand Mesa. The ranch has the No. 1 priority water right — meaning the oldest, which comes with the ability to use the creek’s water first — dating to 1881.
What makes the ranch unique among its Grand Mesa-area neighbors is its owner. Conscience Bay Company, a Boulder-based private real estate investment firm, bought the property in 2017.
That fact alone has brought its owners scrutiny from neighbors and Western Slope water managers. Conscience Bay and its president, Eli Feldman, have been accused of water speculation — which means buying up the ranch just for its senior water rights and hoarding them for a future profit.
That is an accusation Feldman denies.
“Any time you come into a place that you’re not from, people are curious at best and skeptical and concerned at worst,” he said.
The ranch raises organic beef using regenerative techniques that operators say are better for soil health. Conscience Bay holds grazing permits on tracts of public land in western Colorado and Utah where the cattle feast on grass before being sent to California to be finished, slaughtered and sold under the brand name SunFed Ranch.
To the charges that he’s doing something untoward by investing in the ranch’s land and abundant water rights, Feldman said he’s just like any other major water user in the state putting it to beneficial use. The ranch is using the water to irrigate, he said.
“We’re growing grass and feeding it to cows and trying to improve the ground, improve the soil health and make a business out of it,” Feldman said.
Speculation work group
The conversation around water speculation has been heating up in Colorado in recent months. At the direction of state lawmakers, a work group has been meeting regularly to explore ways to strengthen the state’s anti-speculation law. The topic frequently comes up at meetings of Western Slope water managers: the Colorado River Water Conservation District, basin roundtables and boards of county commissioners.
Investments such as Feldman’s have been of interest to the work group, which consists of water managers and users from around the state and is chaired by Kevin Rein, state engineer and head of the Division of Water Resources.
“I think it’s a valid concern because they do see unusual parties, large parties that, again, aren’t the typical parties, purchasing those water rights, and so that’s the concern,” Rein said. “Are they speculating or are they purchasing just so they can flip it, as people say, in a few years for more money?”
Under Colorado law, a water-rights holder must put their water to “beneficial use,” meaning continuing to use the water for what it was decreed in order to hang onto it. But Colorado also treats the right to use water as a private-property right. People can buy and sell water rights, change what the water is allowed to be used for and, if given a court’s blessing, move the water from agricultural use to growing cities.
This system, used widely in the western United States, creates an opening for investors who see water as an increasingly valuable commodity in a water-short future, driven by climate change. A private-equity fund, Water Asset Management, is now the largest landowner in the Grand Valley Water Users Association, which provides water for farmers in the intensely irrigated valley, a short drive from Harts Basin Ranch. The purchases of the New York City-based company have raised suspicions among water managers and prompted the formation of the speculation work group.
Similar concerns have cropped up in agricultural communities throughout the West. A water transfer in Arizona from agricultural lands on the Colorado River to a rapidly expanding Phoenix exurb recently stirred up controversy. In Nevada, Water Asset Management is trying to market water held in an underground aquifer.
Colorado’s current anti-speculation doctrine is based on case law that says those seeking a water right must have a vested interest in the lands to be served by the water and must have a specific plan to put the water to beneficial use.
The work group has identified the following risks from speculators: investors’ obtaining a monopoly over a local water market; large-scale, permanent dry-up of agricultural lands; less water availability for other water users; and violation of Colorado’s values to see a vital public resource traded as a commodity.
The potential solutions to these risks are many, according to a draft document. The work group is exploring several of these, including creating a process to determine the intent of the purchaser; taxing profits from the sale of water rights at varying rates to encourage beneficial use and to discourage profiteering; imposing time limits on turnover of ownership to discourage short-term “flipping”; encouraging local governments to police investments through their 1041 powers; and creating a public-review process for water transfers that exceed some threshold.
The group has not coalesced around any of these potential solutions, but state officials said they are zeroing in on using the water court process to evaluate transfers as a way of spotting speculation.
The work group is supposed to submit a report, along with any recommendations from members, to state officials by August. But so far, the group has had a difficult time making sense of the thorny questions raised by these issues. Even trying to define what speculation is (and isn’t) and who is considered a speculator has been a struggle.
“It’s one thing to point at something and say, ‘Oh, that’s probably speculative.’ Another to actually put the legal definition on it,” said Alex Funk, agricultural water-resources specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Funk is also a member of the work group.
Discussions so far about reining in speculation have focused on the intent of the buyer. Can the state determine whether someone who is purchasing water rights intends to grow hay or build a residential subdivision? Or are they solely focused on the water rights’ future value? And how do you tell the difference?
“Do we want to protect against certain types of intent?” Rein said. “And then how do we determine that?”
Predetermining a water-right purchaser’s intent could prove to be a difficult task, akin to stopping a crime before it’s actually committed. Funk invoked the 2002 film “Minority Report,” in which a police detective (played by Tom Cruise), with the help of three psychics, tracks down would-be murderers and arrests them before any gun goes off.
“There aren’t speculation police running the state and breaking up these investments, right?” Funk said.
Financial water speculation
A draft report by the work group attempts to define two different types of speculation.
The first is traditional water speculation, which involves obtaining a water right without any plan or intent to put that water to beneficial use. The intent is to obtain a desirable priority date and then sell the water right to others who have a beneficial use.
This type of speculation has been addressed before in Colorado water law in what is known as the High Plains case. In 2005, the Colorado Supreme Court determined that a water-investment company was speculating because its plan for using the water was too expansive and nebulous, and the plan did not identify either the structures through which the water would be diverted or the specific locations where the water would be used.
The second type of speculation — and, because of WAM’s dealings in the Grand Valley, the one on which the work group is more focused — is financial water speculation. The work group defines this as the purchase and use of water rights with the primary purpose of profiting from increased value of the water in a short period of time. Financial water speculation may run counter to Colorado’s prior-appropriation doctrine because the primary intent is profit rather than beneficial use.
The concerns over speculation tap into a deep-seated anxiety that is prevalent in Western farm towns: the transfer of water from agriculture to cities. There are real examples of agricultural water being sold to cities, sometimes derisively described as “buy and dry,” and some rural communities have suffered economically as a result.
In some ways, the work group’s discussion of how to prevent speculation is really a broader discussion of how to prevent water transfers away from agriculture. The group has identified the large-scale, permanent dry-up of agricultural lands as the No. 1 risk from speculators. Part of Funk’s job is to head up a program of “alternative transfer methods,” which allow cities to temporarily buy or lease water from agriculture, but without the severe economic impacts.
“I think the issue with speculation is that what on paper might seem a very sort of small, isolated issue, as soon as you start sort of unpacking it a little bit, it’s essentially all the problems that Western water and rural communities are facing in, like, one issue,” Funk said. “So, as soon as you start unraveling it, you start running into other forces at play that are really beyond the state’s control or any one individual producer’s control.”
Impacts to ag
The work group is walking a fine line to come up with ways to deter speculation while not harming traditional agriculture producers in the process. In a big-picture sense, irrigators may worry about the impact to their community and way of life if all their neighbors sell to hedge funds. But when it’s their turn to receive a check for their water rights, they don’t want regulators doing anything that would make the process harder or devalue the ranch they have put their lives into, including restricting whom they can sell to.
It’s an oft-repeated adage that a rancher’s land and water rights are their 401(k) or their child’s college fund, and some say any new rules aimed at speculators should not make it more difficult for traditional ag producers to cash out if and when they want.
So far, the investment firms active in western Colorado have continued to lease their land back to farmers, or farm it themselves.
Carlyle Currier, a rancher in Molina and president of the Colorado Farm Bureau, has a seat on the Colorado River Basin Roundtable and his family has ranched in the Grand Mesa area for more than a century. Currier said until the investors attempt to sell it off, they’re not doing anything illegal.
“If the government can tell (someone) they can’t buy a farm and farm it, well, then they could tell me that, too. And I don’t want them telling me that,” Currier said.
The speculation discussion is also set against the backdrop of a potential demand-management program, the feasibility of which the state is currently studying. A demand-management program would pay irrigators on a temporary, voluntary basis to fallow fields and leave more water in the river. This water would be sent to Lake Powell to fill a 500,000-acre-foot pool that could be used to help the upper-basin states avoid a protracted legal battle with states downstream on the Colorado River.
Some say the exploration of demand management — including pay-to-fallow pilot projects in the Grand Valley — could have opened the door for investors who want to take advantage of the program to make easy money. Where there are opportunities, there are opportunists.
“Here in Mesa County, we’ve been watching a Wall Street investment firm buying up agricultural properties all with pre-compact water rights,” Steve Aquafresca, Mesa County’s Colorado River District representative, said at a board meeting last month. “I think it could be safely said that these actions probably would not have occurred if the state were not discussing the possibility of a demand-management program and if one particular major irrigation-water provider was not showing some willingness to entertain a demand-management program.”
Suspicion of outsiders
For all the concern about water speculation, there’s scant proof that it’s happening on a large scale on the Western Slope. Even WAM is not speculating, according to the current definition, as long as they keep the land in agricultural production.
“It does seem like there’s a lot of speculation about speculation,” Feldman of investment firm Conscience Bay said.
Instead, he said, old-fashioned suspicion of outsiders is at the heart of the issue.
“There’s people that view us as outsiders and we are not from here,” he said. “We know that. We know that damn well. And that’s not news to us.”
And there’s some evidence that he’s right. The Colorado River District, which protects Western Slope water interests, is developing a policy statement about water speculation. A draft of the policy says the district “recognizes the importance of locally owned agricultural lands and waters” and will work “to protect our state’s water resources from out-of-state special interests.”
And although these ideas didn’t get much traction, the work group has also floated two more potential solutions targeting outsiders: restricting the ability of out-of-state entities to participate in Colorado water court proceedings and prohibiting out-of-state entities from holding water rights.
“Is speculation just another word for investment (but it has) a negative connotation to it because it’s somebody that’s not from here?” Feldman said. “OK, well, do you not want to have investment in rural Colorado? Is that what we’re after? That’s where it would go if you put up enough barriers and hoops.”
Feldman says he is not the enemy. His operation isn’t the mom-and-pop homestead ranch of the Old West. It’s the investor-owned, employee-operated, risk-taking ranch of the New West. Harts Basin Ranch is looking for innovative ways to adapt to water scarcity and is participating in a program with environmental group Trout Unlimited to study consumptive use and how agriculture can stay productive while using less water. The group receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also funds KUNC’s Colorado River reporting.
Feldman sees the heated discussion about speculation as a symptom of how Western communities are choosing to grapple with increasing water scarcity under climate change. There are those who explore new ways of running an old business and there are those who want to protect the status quo.
“At its core you see a real friction or conflict between a group of people that’s trying to make water policy more flexible to adapt to a changing climate,” Feldman said, “and those that are trying to impose more rigidity and prevent any change from occurring.”
This story was part of a collaboration between KUNC in Colorado and Aspen Journalism. Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit and investigative news organization that covers water and river issues. KUNC’s Colorado River reporting project is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.
Stronger together: How Eagle County’s health care workers rose to the challenge of COVID-19
In the thick of the pandemic, in a year that refused to let up, Caitlyn Ngam started running.
An infection preventionist at Vail Health Hospital, Ngam prefers more daring outdoor pursuits: whitewater kayaking, dirt biking, and tearing down the mountain on her skis. But with her professional life bleeding into every aspect of her personal life, Ngam needed a release valve. As the 14-hour days at the hospital stacked up, and the toll of the pandemic weighed on her, she found herself being pulled outdoors for what she jokingly referred to as “jogging on purpose.”
Running from something? Towards something? Ngam isn’t so sure, but whatever it was, she absolutely needed it.
“I used to be able to leave thinking about infectious disease and masking and hand washing at work,” she said. “And I would go home and go in public and nobody cares about that kind of thing. But now the whole planet is thinking about your work. So it’s harder to escape in that sense.”
Before COVID-19 took over her life, pandemic preparedness was a sidebar in Ngam’s role at Vail Health. It was the “oh, just in case” aspect of a job focused on keeping infections out of the hospital. Name any type of infection — staph, urinary tract, seasonal flu, SARS — and you can be sure that Ngam has, at some point, obsessed over it.
But in early 2020, that “oh just in case” scenario of a global pandemic quickly consumed every waking minute of her life. Protocols and rigorous training are essential to a job that requires constant vigilance, but Ngam said she could always compartmentalize her work. That changed when a mysterious, airborne virus that originated halfway around the world quickly found its way into every corner of humanity, including Eagle County.
The valley’s two largest health care providers, Vail Health and Colorado Mountain Medical, braced for the arrival of COVID-19 by stockpiling personal protective equipment before supply chains were overwhelmed and launching a system-wide high-level task force to solve logistical challenges as they arose. But when case numbers exploded locally in early March, there was no training to emotionally prepare for the reality of a novel virus that was highly contagious and deadly.
“We see all kinds of infectious disease where we need to take precautions all the time,” Ngam said. “But for something to spread that quickly, we knew that it was something different and that we would be kind of off and running from that point.”
They haven’t slowed down since.
Antarctica. That’s where Dr. Brooks Bock was in late January when he first heard about COVID-19. Earth’s least inhabited continent was arguably the safest place on the planet with a global pandemic on the march.
Bock, the CEO of Colorado Mountain Medical, was traveling with his wife on a National Geographic ship to see penguins up close. He first read about the virus that originated from Wuhan, China, in a daily newsletter that rounded up global headlines.
By the time he returned to the Vail Valley in February, he found himself on a voyage unlike any other he’d ever taken in a medical career spanning more than five decades. Over the course of 75 or so days, Bock and Chris Lindley, Vail Health’s chief population health officer, worked out of a command center at the hospital managing the organization-wide response to the pandemic.
What started as a smaller team of high-level managers quickly grew to include as many as 24 different staffers from an array of departments over the months of February, March and April as the first wave of the virus shut down the valley and the state.
The objectives? Keeping the local health care system from buckling under the strain of the virus and protecting health care workers and the community at large.
For each member of the team, especially the two men heading up the collaborative effort, the experience was challenging, exhilarating and emotionally draining.
“We got to be good friends,” Bock said. “I have a tremendous respect for him and I enjoyed working with him.”
The challenge of slowing the virus put all of Lindley’s education and experience to the test. A former unit commander and environmental science officer of preventive medicine in the 793rd Medical Detachment of the United States Army Medical Reserves, Lindley served in Iraq and received a Bronze Star for saving multiple lives during a suicide bomber attack. He holds master’s degrees in public health, epidemiology and business administration.
His first job after getting his master’s in epidemiology was working with bioterrorism preparedness for Denver Health Medical Center.
“It was the first in the country training for pandemic influenza or large scale biological warfare attack,” he said. “These things, I’ve been thinking about them my whole career.”
If Lindley had been prepping for a global pandemic for years, Bock represented the opposite end of the spectrum.
“I certainly never planned to live in a pandemic,” he said. “And hopefully there won’t be another during the rest of my lifetime.”
Working together on the same problems, with the same goals in mind, often times with different approaches, brought the two together — and the two organizations they represented. Colorado Mountain Medical’s merger with Vail Health in July 2019 had, on paper, already created a valley-wide health care network — but Lindley, Bock and Vail Health CEO Will Cook insist that it took a pandemic, of all things, to truly make the two providers inseparable.
“There were lots of moments of concern and doubt,” Bock said. “The amazing thing was that everyone was very supportive. Everyone was very collaborative. There was no one who was trying to run the show. It was a group effort to figure out what we needed to do.”
Each day brought new challenges, and with those challenges came spirited debates, brainstorming sessions and swift innovation.
How to ramp up testing and keep the virus out of the hospital and clinics? Create the state’s first drive-thru testing facility, in Gypsum, and install a testing trailer at the hospital in Vail — both of which were in place by March 7. Also, create a system of “clean clinic” safety protocols to ensure the safety of patients and staff as clinics eventually began seeing patients again for well visits.
How to reach the valley’s Spanish-speaking communities? Partner with the MIRA Bus to begin offering free testing.
How to solve the riddle of a lack of available tests and delayed results from outside labs? Work to develop an in-house test that could be turned around quickly.
How to counter the slow-rolling behavioral health crisis that was engulfing the valley as residents struggled with isolation, joblessness, food and financial insecurity, and the stress of kids learning remote? Provide telehealth training for all behavioral health providers, hire 40 new behavioral health specialists and roll out a community-wide scholarship fund to provide those in need who are struggling financially with free access to services.
“We learned a lot about what it means to be resilient, and I think even before COVID, we were already dealing with a lot of those problems,” Cook said.
He described the response to COVID among his staff like any response to a traumatic event: First there was denial, then a sense of sorrow and being overwhelmed.
“I think that actually the initial phases bonded us together and really helped us respond the way that we did,” he said. “What I’ve liked the most, is, you know, Chris and Dr. Bock and even Amanda Amanda Veit, our COO, and so many others, were spending countless hours in that command center. But they were collaborating, making decisions, moving quickly and avoiding that bureaucratic sort of hierarchy that can sometimes make people feel like I’m not going to even bother to make this decision because I’m going to have to go through three channels above me.”
Bock said he enjoyed becoming a bit of a local celebrity by filming a number of informational videos with Lindley and others early on in the pandemic that helped soothe some of the fears of the community.
“We would call each other the day before and say, ‘OK, let’s make a video on this. Or let’s make a video on that,’” he said. “It was the topic of the moment that we were trying to educate the community on, and they were effective, remarkably effective. I can’t tell you how many people I would see when I was out and about at the grocery store, or wherever I ventured to, not often, but whenever I ventured out for the needs that I had, people would comment on how much they appreciated that and the personal touch that it brought to their lives and the assurances that they received from them.”
Added Lindley: “You always kind of look at the big health care systems, the big hospitals with all they can do,” he said. “Many of them have great resources, very talented people, great financial capability. But I got to see firsthand what this health care system is for this community and what it can do. And without question, I’m 100 percent certain the Vail Health system has done more in this community than any health care system I’ve heard about or ever dreamed about.”
‘This test sucks’
Mark Joffrion parachuted into a crisis. He started his job as the director of Vail Health’s laboratory in March, smack in the middle of the first wave of COVID-19 cases in the valley.
A soft-spoken Southerner who came to the Colorado after stints in labs all across the country, working in Louisiana, Indiana, Texas, Alaska, Oregon, California, Florida and North Carolina, Joffrion described his first weeks and months in his new role as an “everyday scramble” to find solutions to problems that were largely out of his control.
How could the lab get more tests? How could it avoid the growing backlogs for results from state and private labs?
“There was just that need to get results out immediately,” Joffrion said. “We kind of had our hands tied with the testing available and the turnaround times that we were dealing with.”
In the early days of the pandemic, Joffrion and Vail Health officials targeted in-house testing as a solution to both of those problems. Developing a test that worked, however, and being able to turn it around quickly to deliver results in a 24-hour period was a challenge that pushed every tech working in the lab to the brink over the summer and into the fall. As Joffrion and his staff worked tirelessly to find a reliable test, not to mention a manufacturer that could supply it, they coped with the stress that came from repeated phone calls looking for results that too often weren’t available.
The waiting was excruciating.
“It’s tough when we’re not the owners of that answer,” he said. “You know, we know when the results come back to us, but we had no control over when it came. And we were dealing with sometimes two, sometimes three different laboratories to get these results out or get them back to us.”
The lab received a test it could perform internally in April, but the supply was extremely limited, creating the need to horde the tests for the most symptomatic patients. Tests for asymptomatic patients were still being sent to an outside reference lab, with turnaround times taking as long as 10 days.
In May, the lab picked up another test it could perform internally, but again, the volume was extremely limited. Joffrion said he checked the FDA website every day to see which tests had been approved for emergency use and if his team could actually run them in the lab.
By October, he finally found a test that looked like it was doable, and would supply the large testing volume that his team needed to drastically reduce turnaround times.
Stress levels reached a peak, however, in the final weeks of October as techs worked their way through the delicate process of making sure the test actually worked. Joffrion said at one point, in a moment of frustration, one of his techs walked up to him in the lab and pronounced, “This test sucks.”
“But she came and we talked about it and I go back there and she’s just running them like a true professional,” he said, smiling. “She said what she wanted to say, but she got back there and she was running, you know, 60, 80, 100 of these tests at once and just doing an amazing job. That just speaks to the quality of individuals here in this laboratory. They were pushed to that limit, but they knew what we wanted, what our goal was.”
By November, with the test dialed, the lab was finally able to complete all testing in-house, and started receiving samples from collection sites in Summit County and Vail, as well as the Aspen area, becoming a regional testing center.
In November, the lab performed a total of 4,061 COVID tests, compared to just 835 in October and a little more than 200 in September. The lab has since performed more than 20,000 tests since November, often turning over a result in 10 hours or less.
“There were some days it was really doubtful if we could do it, but these are true professionals just stepping up to incredible levels to do what they did,” Joffrion said. “What’s happened in this laboratory is really amazing.”
Coming full circle
Julie Scales is uncomfortable with people making a big deal about her story. During the past 13 months, so many people have gotten sick, she said. So many have died.
There have been 22 Eagle County locals who have succumbed to the virus and more than half a million Americans. But talking to Scales’ coworkers at Vail Health, where she works as a lead respiratory therapist, her recovery from the virus is the narrative that often emerges when they talk about the turning points in the pandemic.
March 14, 2020, is the day when COVID-19 became jarringly personal to them. It’s the same day that the local ski resorts shut down and the hospital saw its highest number of patients admitted. One of those admitted was Scales, whose work often brought her into the emergency department.
“It came home pretty hard,” said Ken Stephen, the charge nurse in Vail Health’s emergency department who oversees the intake of patients.
Earlier that week, Scales had been convinced she had a sinus infection. She had a pounding headache but no respiratory symptoms. Working in a hospital, over the course of a winter, everyone deals with colds and gets run down, and Scales just pushed on with her work. But by Saturday, she was experiencing respiratory symptoms and was admitted to the hospital. A day later, March 15, with her condition worsening, she was transported to the Medical Center of Aurora.
Stephen said seeing Scales being prepped for that ambulance ride down to the Front Range was similar to watching a patient go into the operating room for the last time for organ donation. Scales’ coworkers were legitimately frightened that it would be the last time they’d ever see her.
“It was really, really hard. Of all my ER staff, all of us that worked in the ER the whole time, none of us got COVID that we know of,” he said. “She’s the only one that worked in the ER intermittently, and after she got it, it was like, ‘OK, people, let’s make sure we buddy up.’ We were very, very careful with each other. We protected each other, we had each other’s back and made sure nobody was put at risk if somebody was really sick. We do not rush into that room.”
“It was definitely very scary,” Scales said. “I’m a respiratory therapist. I’ve intubated people on ventilators my whole career, and knowing that that’s where I was headed, I was very scared when I was headed down to Denver.”
Scales spent 10 days in the Aurora hospital, seven of them on a ventilator. She doesn’t remember much. Her daughter, 34, was with her.
“I had my phone, but I didn’t have a charger, so my phone would die,” she said. “My friend told me that I just texted her, and I just said, ‘I’m just going to try and live, OK?’”
After coming off the ventilator, Scales pleaded with doctors to discharge her. She returned home with the help of supplemental oxygen. From the beginning, she was determined to return to work. It took her nearly two months to get back on the job, and it was slow going at first.
“It was very emotional, and still is at times to take care of COVID patients,” she said. “My first ventilator patient that I took care of when I came back was super-emotional. I held it together in the patient’s room. But I had to take the tube out and it was very dramatic.”
Equally dramatic: the scene of Scales being the first Eagle County resident to receive a shot of vaccine on Dec. 16, 2020. That’s when many of Scales’ coworkers said they could finally see the fog start to lift.
Since recovering, Scales has climbed a 14er and marked the one-year anniversary of when she was admitted as a patient by going skiing with some of her coworkers. Gnam was among those who were excited to get out on the hill with her.
“I just made a comment to my daughter that I would like to ski down the hill instead of go down the hill in an ambulance on the 15th,” said Scales, who spent more than three decades working in hospitals in her home state of Indiana before moving to Colorado a few years ago to be closer to her daughter. “I feel really humbled by everything and I feel bad for the people that didn’t make it because when I was sick, we had a lot of people in the valley that were sick.”
Getting to the other side
How does this story end? Vail Health CEO Will Cook isn’t so sure.
Too often, the COVID-19 pandemic has been referred to as a race. A race to save lives. A race to develop effective vaccines. A race to get back to normal.
Cook said Eagle County, as a whole, has run that race better than most places around the country and the state. The collaboration between the valley’s health care providers, local governments and the community at large has been at the center of that.
The county never plunged into the Level Red restrictions that were a crushing blow to neighboring counties. Shools have managed to remain open for the current academic year while other districts around the state struggled to open and stay open.
The pandemic forced innovation, collaboration and created an opportunity for leaders to emerge, Cook said. But that success story doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and the national tragedy of a pandemic that is still killing as many as 1,000 Americans a day, and has claimed more than 500,000 American lives, continues to overshadow the local narrative.
“I’m still waiting for the impact of this to my management team,” Cook said. “In some of the front-line staff, we’re worried now about what we refer to as hero syndrome, which is that you get so caught up in being on the front lines of dealing with this and being in there for vaccinations where people are emotionally elated and overwhelmed and excited and happy. How do you go back to being the H.R. assistant after that? It’s understandable, though. I don’t think we’ve even seen the end of the impact of this.”
Lindley, an eternal optimist, said the last year has flown by for him, and that in a time where charged national debates over the virus, masking, and reopening created deeper fractures in American society, he has been inspired by the community spirit that has carried the day here.
“I think that finger pointing this year has started to decrease and go away,” he said. “And our challenge is, how do we stay in this community collaborative effort going forward? Because we’re going to have other challenges right now. We have a lot of things we have to address. But if we can do it in this response mode I think we’re all in, it’s unbelievable.”
Stephen said hospital workers “saw things that would terrify most people every day without batting an eyelid.”
Making it to the other side of the pandemic, with the county rapidly approaching 30,000 total doses of vaccine distributed, is the light at the end of a tunnel in a trying year.
“They showed up for work and got it done,” Stephen said. “They’re team players, the best team in the land. You could have called in sick. You could have asked not to do it. But not a single one of them did that. We rose to the challenge. We were resilient and we stayed here for the community and took care of them.”
Health care workers reflect on one-year anniversary of Eagle County’s first COVID-19 case
Eagle’s County’s first confirmed COVID-19 case arrived exactly 12 months ago on March 6, just one day after Colorado’s first case was discovered in neighboring Summit County.
But it’s clear that the virus was here and spreading much earlier than that, based on extensive interviews with health care workers and officials from Vail Health and Colorado Mountain Medical.
“We had COVID in this community in February. We had COVID all over the United States in February. We just didn’t have the ability to identify it,” said Chris Lindley, the chief population health officer for Vail Health who has spearheaded the hospital’s COVID-19 response since the start. “The testing was not in place until March to identify a case at all in the country, let alone in this valley. And so once we started looking for COVID in early March, we found it right away.”
The state’s first confirmed case was a California man in his 30s who’d recently been to Italy and had come to Summit County to ski. He skied in Vail in the days before entering a medical facility on the other side of the pass and tested positive for the virus that would quickly alter every facet of life in the state over the next year.
Looking back, it’s no surprise that Eagle County quickly become one of the hottest spots in the state, and a global transmission zone, considering the visitors it attracts from all over the world.
Eagle County’s first confirmed case was an Australian woman in her 50s who wrote about her experience after returning home. Jill Hunsaker Ryan, the former Eagle County commissioner who is now the state’s top public health official as the executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, has said that the virus was likely circulating here as early as January.
Just four days after Eagle County confirmed its first case, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis declared a state of emergency. On March 12, county public health officials said it was clear that community transmission was taking place — meaning people were contracting the virus that hadn’t traveled abroad and were unaware of how they might have gotten it. A day later, local schools shut down to slow the spread, a move that became permanent for the rest of the spring semester.
The following day, Saturday, March 14, Vail Resorts made the decision to temporarily shutter all 34 of its North American resorts and Polis ordered Colorado’s ski resorts closed for a week.
The closures, which sent the valley’s tourism-based economy into free fall during one of the busiest months of the year, became permanent as it became obvious that the virus was here to stay.
Planning and adjusting on the fly
Vail Health had prepared better than most hospitals around the country by stockpiling personal protective equipment in January before global supplies were depleted. It also launched a system-wide task force to tackle the logistical challenges of a pandemic. But the speed at which the virus spread, and roadblocks that quickly arose — from a severe shortage of tests, and state and private labs quickly getting overwhelmed — forced the local health care system to innovate on the fly and find local solutions to national and statewide problems.
In hindsight, health care workers said there was plenty that could have been done different in the weeks and months that followed, although so little was known about the virus when it first showed up. The world was a different place.
“We probably should have started masking in February, just knowing that travel across the world from this place in China that had a big outbreak of a highly infectious disease is going to spread throughout the world,” Lindley said. “That’s our new reality with international travel is anything that takes place anywhere else in the world is within 48 hours a direct threat to us.”
Caitlyn Ngam, an infection preventionist at Vail Health, said pandemic preparedness is something that’s in her job description, but it’s always been a sidebar to her day-to-day work. She described a global pandemic as her own “Super Bowl” — though talking about and preparing for such a thing with hypotheticals is a lot different than actually facing one in real-time.
“We see all kinds of infectious disease where we need to take precautions all the time,” she said. “But for something to spread that quickly, we knew that it was something different and that we would be kind of off and running from that point.”
Ken Stephen, the charge nurse in Vail Health’s emergency department who oversees the intake of patients, said the excitement of trying to identify the first patients in the county with COVID-19 symptoms from those coming into the ER who were “well worried” quickly faded as it became clear just how fast the virus was spreading.
“I was really the point guy,” he said. “We had screeners at the door and they would get a possible COVID situation and then my phone would ring and I would go and spend my time out in the parking lot. I would just sort through them and see who had to be seen in the ER and who could be seen elsewhere.”
Stephen said he got so good at the sorting process that he almost didn’t need the rapid-read thermometer and the pulse oximeter he used, among other tools, to identify patients with severe virus cases. He said he could almost sense if a patient needed to be admitted by having them pull down their mask.
“I saw so many people and screened so many people,” he said.
The peak, Stephen said, was March 14, the same day the resorts shut down. That’s when he said the ER admitted 16 patients and “probably turned just as many away.”
Stephen himself now suspects that he got the virus in February while traveling from his native Scotland back to the valley, but had no clue at the time that his symptoms could be tied to a respiratory virus that started in China.
One common goal
As the days and weeks wore on, and the pandemic settled in, health care workers described marathon days focused on one thing: protecting their community.
Fears and doubts were rampant, but they were secondary to the job at hand.
Stephen said hospital workers “saw things that would terrify most people every day without batting an eyelid.”
“They showed up for work and got it done,” he said. “… They’re team players, the best team in the land. You could have called in sick. You could have asked not to do it. But not a single one of them did that. We rose to the challenge. We were resilient and we stayed here for the community and took care of them.”
That protection came in many forms, from creating the state’s first drive-through testing facility to implementing a variety of new safety protocols in facilities up and down the valley to completely revamping local clinics to keep potential COVID-19 patients in one place away from other patients. There was also the months-long initiative from Vail Health to develop an in-house test that could be turned around quickly to avoid the backlogs that plagued the county and the state over the spring and summer, a push that finally bore fruit this fall.
And, as scientists worked around the globe to develop vaccines against the virus, hospital workers and public health officials prepped for the day the first shipment would arrive.
All of that work in 12 months, with Eagle County avoiding the worst of the state’s restrictions by never dipping into Level Red, has paid off.
The county has seen 5,163 confirmed cases of the virus. It has done 49,232 tests. Twenty community members have died — a number much lower than original projections. And since the first vaccine shots were administered in late December, more than 25,300 total doses of vaccine have been administered.
The fog of the pandemic is lifting.
“I think by May things are going to look amazing,“ Lindley said. ”The sun’s going to be out, it’s going to be warming up. And we’re going to be thinking about great community events, concerts, music in the park. I think all that’s going to start coming back this summer in a big way. And I’m excited just to see all our old friends hanging out together, relaxing, and starting to come back together in a non-physically distanced manner. OK, with more hugs. I see lots of hugs this summer.“
Nate Peterson is the editor of the Vail Daily. Email him at email@example.com.
Bennet, Hickenlooper, Neguse to reintroduce the CORE Act
Nearly a year ago, Mike Greenwood invited Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet to meet with a group of Greenwood’s friends at Camp Hale, the famed World War II training site of the 10th Mountain Division located between Leadville and Red Cliff in Eagle County.
On Tuesday, Greenwood joined Bennet again on a call featuring former Gov. John Hickenlooper, Colorado’s newly elected U.S. senator, and U.S. Representative Joe Neguse, who represents a portion of Eagle County, to announce the reintroduction of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act, the massive public lands bill that has been in the works for over a decade.
Greenwood issued a challenge to all three Democratic lawmakers to remember the legacy of those World War II soldiers as they again took up the bill in Congress.
“Those men would not give up,” he said. “Those men would keep charging. Those men would find a way to make it happen. I challenge Congress to find a way to make it happen. Don’t give up. Get this thing passed.”
A decade in the making
If the CORE Act is to finally pass, after more than 10 years of revisions and exhaustive feedback from constituents, the time is now, with Democrats back in control in the Senate and Joe Biden in the White House.
The bill would protect over 400,000 acres of public land in the state, establish new wilderness, recreation, and conservation areas, and protect Camp Hale as a first-of-its-kind National Historic Landscape. Included in the package are protections covering portions of the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado, the Curecanti National Recreation Area near Gunnison, the Thompson Divide southwest of Glenwood Springs and the Continental Divide surrounding Camp Hale.
Hickenlooper, who beat incumbent Republican Cory Gardner in November’s election to help Democrats flip the Senate, agreed with his colleagues that the time has come to pass a piece of legislation that has such a broad coalition of support.
“I’m not taking anything for granted,” he said. “I think it will take a lot of talking and a lot of work. It is so unusual to have a bill where the county commissioners, Republican and Democrat, agree that the land in their county, that’s part of this bill, should be protected in this manner. Everyone of these county commissioners supported it. When I’ve been saying that to Republicans and Democrats here, I’ve gotten initially positive responses. Now, obviously, I’m new to the Senate, but I’ve learned one thing and that’s that nothing is for sure. There are no lay-ups.”
Bennet said he’s optimistic that the bill will get a vote on the Senate floor this year, either as its own bill or in a package of public lands bills. In the previous Congress, Neguse was the bill’s main sponsor in the House, where it passed twice, only for the legislation to be stifled in the previously Republican-controlled Senate. Gardner said he would not support the bill, as written, and the Trump administration had threatened to veto the bill if it ever passed both houses of Congress.
“I really think the American people are tired of the dysfunction in Washington and I think that they expect us to move the country’s business forward,” Bennet said. “That has not been what we have been doing for the last four years and this is very, very high on my list of priorities. I know it’s very high on Senator Hickenlooper’s as well. We’re going to look for the earliest opportunity to pass it.”
Among those previously voting against the bill in the House were Colorado Reps. Ken Buck, Doug Lamborn and Scott Tipton, all Republicans. Tipton lost to newcomer Lauren Boebert in the Republican primary for the 3rd Congressional District, which encompasses the western portion of Eagle County. Most of the protected lands in the CORE Act are in Boebert’s district, and Boebert made it clear during her campaign to defeat Democrat Diane Mitsch Bush that she wasn’t in support of the bill in its current form.
That said, Bennet was confident that the bill would again find bipartisan support in the House and would face its greatest challenge in the Senate, where Democrats hold a deciding vote from Vice President Kamala Harris to break a 50-50 tie.
“The biggest enemy of any smart piece of legislation is dysfunction in the Senate,” Bennet said. “That’s what we have to find a way to overcome.”
He added: “I believe there has never been a public lands bill in Colorado that has had as much public process or public buy-in as this bill. And people understand that it’s critically important to pass it, both for the conservation values that it reflects, but also for Colorado’s economy.”
He then mentioned Sandy Treat, the beloved Vail icon and 10th Mountain Division veteran, who Neguse said he got to know well before Treat died in Sept. 2019.
“He was a wonderful man, who when he was alive, provided unwavering advocacy in the effort to forever maintain Camp Hale as a national historic landscape,” Neguse said. “He worked so hard and I distinctly remember talking to him in April 2019 in Summit County, visiting with him, and telling him we were going to make the Core Act a reality. The passage of the bill would honor his wish.”
Colorado begins planning to reintroduce gray wolves
Planning efforts to bring the controversial gray wolf back to parts of Colorado’s Western Slope are officially getting underway.
The state’s 11-member Parks and Wildlife Commission approved a process that aims to engage the public and scientists to develop a plan to reintroduce gray wolves and adaptively manage the species, with state officials saying they see a “complicated, but achievable” path forward.
The commission’s Jan. 14 action follows voters’ slim passage of a ballot initiative last November that directs the state to reintroduce the gray wolf by the end of 2023. The gray wolf once inhabited every part of Colorado but was shot, trapped and poisoned until it was eradicated from the state by the 1940s.
“We have direction from the voters of Colorado to develop a reintroduction and management plan for gray wolves as transparently and expeditiously as possible,” said Colorado Parks and Wildlife Director Dan Prenzlow. “This authorizes us to move forward in a phased approach that will allow us to be both efficient and flexible as we enact the plan. We will introduce wolves in Colorado no later than Dec. 31, 2023.”
The planning process proposed by CPW and approved by the commission will look to engage biologists and wolf experts as well as the public and stakeholder groups to balance widely varying public perspectives about reintroducing and managing the gray wolf in yet-to-be designated areas on Colorado’s Western Slope.
The ballot initiative saw strong support along the Front Range, while voters in a majority of Western Slope counties opposed it, with some people arguing that reintroduction is unnecessary with a handful of gray wolves already dispersing into northwest Colorado, most likely from Wyoming.
People and dozens of groups opposed to the initiative raised numerous concerns about the gray wolf’s reintroduction. Those included wolves’ impacts on ranchers and livestock, on elk, deer and moose populations and the hunting opportunities they support, wolves’ spread to other areas, and conflicts with people in an increasingly populated state.
The planning process will now seek a collaborative effort to address numerous controversial questions, including where gray wolves are reintroduced, how many wolves are released, and how populations are managed, both to ensure the gray wolf’s recovery in Colorado and to minimize conflicts.
Uncertain regulatory landscape
The planning effort is also expected to have to contend with the uncertain legal status surrounding the gray wolf.
Pointing to the recovery of wolf populations in the Northern Rocky Mountain and Great Lakes states, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently delisted gray wolves nationwide, ending their protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The delisting turned management authority over gray wolves back to Colorado and other states, effective Jan. 4. But the action is widely expected to be challenged in court. That could result in years of legal uncertainty — or even in gray wolf management authority being turned back over to the federal government, an outcome that would require Colorado to get federal approvals to reintroduce wolves or undertake numerous management actions involving them. The gray wolf remains protected under Colorado state law.
“There is a huge concern about putting wolves on the ground and then they are relisted,” said commissioner Charles Garcia. “This commission needs to look forward to that possibility, which is very likely, and be ready for it.”
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis challenged the commission to approve a management plan and reintroduce gray wolves to designated areas on the Western Slope well before the Dec. 31, 2023 deadline imposed by the ballot initiative.
“You don’t want to be up against a deadline in three years. You also don’t want to rush it through and try to get wolves on the ground this year,” Polis said. He suggested that a reintroduction and management plan could be drafted and approved by the commission as soon as early next year.
“This is not about relitigating what voters have decided. That’s the law of Colorado, we will carry that out. It’s really about doing it in a way that ensures a broad coalition feels part of it, and that people’s voices are heard,” Polis said. “Even if they didn’t vote the prevailing way and that’s not their personal desire, that doesn’t mean they don’t have knowledge or expertise that might contribute to the success of the enterprise, or perhaps address even some of their own concerns.”
The process also calls for the creation of technical and stakeholder working groups to advise the commission on the wolf reintroduction and management plan, as well as contracting an external facilitator to help lead and mediate the process.
The technical working group, anticipated to include state and federal agencies and tribal representatives, will work on conservation objectives and management strategies and the development of programs to minimize conflicts and fairly compensate ranchers for livestock losses to wolves.
Stakeholder advisory group members are anticipated to include wolf advocacy groups, livestock producers, local and county governments, general citizens, and sportspersons. It will support the development of draft strategies by representing a range of viewpoints and geographic areas in the state, officials said.
Reid DeWalt, assistant director for aquatic, terrestrial and natural resources at CPW, who will oversee the wolf planning process, noted that both groups will advise the Parks and Wildlife Commission, which will have the final say on approving a reintroduction and management plan.
While the approved process for developing a management plan and reintroducing gray wolves envisions taking three years, the process can be shortened as progress allows or as the commission sees fit.
“We want to start to engage the advisory and technical groups very quickly,” DeWalt told the commission. “Depending on the speed of this group, processes could be completed next year, or we could use time to continue conversations and look at the extended timeline, depending on the will of the commission.”
The process is anticipated to be challenging. Commission members reported receiving hundreds of emails leading up to their Jan. 13-14 meeting, and heard nearly an hour of public comment before voting to adopt the planning process.
Yet as the first voter-driven gray wolf reintroduction in America, the process also represents a major conservation initiative underway in the country, and an opportunity for the often-embattled sides of the wolf debate to try to work together, find common ground and shape a plan that can work for both wolves and people in Colorado.
The biggest challenges of that process are expected to be social and political, rather than biological, said Eric Odell, species conservation program manager for CPW. He noted that debate over the gray wolf “encapsulates the full spectrum of human emotion.”
“Because the attention people pay to wolves is not balanced with the relatively minor impact wolves have on the lives of most people, wolf management will probably remain complicated, expensive, political and controversial,” Odell said.
And while there are numerous wolf reintroduction and management plans in other states to learn and draw experiences from, Colorado’s experience will undoubtedly be unique, Odell predicted. “There is no cookbook method to wolf management,” he said.