La Plata County will put the brakes on a project to build a new radar system for the Four Corners after concerns were raised that a selected site south of Durango did not provide the best coverage of the region.
The Four Corners has long been known as a blind spot when it comes to weather and radar modeling, as major hubs in Albuquerque, Grand Junction and Flagstaff, Arizona, take in data at elevations too high to accurately hone in on the area.
For years, local officials have pushed to bring a radar system to the region, to no avail. But the need became critical after the 416 Fire in summer 2018 created flood danger when storms hit the fire’s burn scar.
Dreams of a permanent radar system for the region became more of a reality in 2019 when the Colorado Department of Local Affairs awarded $1.7 million in funding, clearing the biggest obstacle in the project’s path.
After a number of potential locations were evaluated, it was announced in September that La Plata County and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe partnered to secure a site on tribal lands along U.S. Highway 550, about 10 miles south of Durango.
The site, however, has drawn considerable criticism from some people involved in the project who say the location would cover only a small portion of the Four Corners. They argue there are better places for the new radar system.
The pushback has reached such a point that La Plata County decided to table plans to construct the radar system this year to allow more time to research and evaluate potential sites.
“We thought we had a way ahead, but the board (of county commissioners) got some pressure and feedback from the community, which has caused us to look at additional sites,” said County Manager Chuck Stevens.
Filling the gapFor most of his decadeslong career as La Plata County’s director of emergency management, Butch Knowlton served as the eyes and ears on the ground to the National Weather Service, which lacked proper radar coverage of the area.
“I’ve taken hundreds and hundreds of calls when bad weather comes into this area,” Knowlton said. “They just cannot see what’s happening in this corner of the state.”
In Grand Junction, for instance, the radar system on Grand Mesa can’t pick up storms that come into the Four Corners at elevations below 28,000 feet, which causes weather forecasters to miss a good number of incoming storms.
After the Missionary Ridge Fire in 2002, which created flash-flood risks in following years, local officials pushed hard, unsuccessfully, for a radar system to have a proper heads up about storms.
The desire never let up in subsequent years, Knowlton said, but after the 416 Fire brought down destructive landslides from the burn scar in 2018, damaging private property and homes, local officials had leverage in asking for funding.
DOLA cleared the way when it was announced in winter 2019 that $1.7 million would fund the project.
“It’s very important for you guys to be able to know with radar what’s coming,” a DOLA spokeswoman said at the time, “because notification is key to be able to prepare and recover when necessary.”
Finding the right spotAfter the money was secured, the next major hurdle was figuring out where to put the radar system, with about 10 sites explored.
Knowlton was among the leads for the project, evaluating all the mountaintops, ridgelines and mesas across La Plata County in search of the best spot that could cover the most amount of terrain.
A longtime La Plata County resident, Knowlton knows the topography of the region like the back of his hand. He knew immediately where the system should go: Bridge Timber Mountain, south of Durango, also known as Black Ridge.
From the top of Bridge Timber Mountain, Knowlton said one can see a flat horizon that stretches 125 miles in every direction.
He said the radar would be able to catch the entire San Juan Mountains to the north, the La Sal Mountains in Utah to the west, Wolf Creek Pass to the east and down to Albuquerque, Santa Fe and even parts of Arizona.
“I absolutely knew there was no better place in Southwest Colorado than that ridge to be able to see the weather that impacts the Four Corners,” he said. “It’s the only place radar should be.”
Perfection comes at a priceWhile the private landowners of the Bridge Timber Mountain location were on board, the site was not without its complications.
For one, there’s no infrastructure atop the mountain, and access is limited to an unmaintained dirt road. Also, to get to the site, it would require permission from the Southern Ute tribe.
Simply put, it would be expensive and time-consuming to make it work.
Still, Knowlton pushed for the location. Because the Bridge Timber Mountain site would cover such a large area, he started building regional partnerships with various stakeholders that would benefit from increased radar coverage.
“Yes, the site had some difficult construction (aspects), but the payoff for the entire Four Corners would be huge,” Knowlton said. “We sold different agencies on the value and benefits for radar down here.”
As he was heading the effort, it was announced in late September by La Plata County that the Southern Ute site along Highway 550 near Bondad was selected, unbeknownst to Knowlton.
“I don’t know (what happened), I was not privy to those conversations at the administrative level at La Plata County,” he said. “Suddenly, it came off the top of the mountain where we could see forever and they put it down in a bowl where it’s very limited.”
Knowlton said the announcement drove, in part, his decision to retire from La Plata County after 44 years.
“This was, to me, the biggest waste of opportunity and taxpayer dollars that I’ve experienced in a long, long time,” he said. “It was over for me.”
Bob Wolff, who served as board president of the Southwestern Water Conservation District, said most of those involved with the project were caught off guard by news of the finalized site. A news story in The Durango Herald announcing the site selection “shocked everyone,” he said.
“No one knew what was coming,” Wolff said.
Selected site has falloutEach location that was considered for the radar system was put through an extensive analysis of its potential coverage area by the National Severe Storms Laboratory Center in Oklahoma.
The selected Southern Ute site along Highway 550, which currently is used for an air monitoring station that tracks air quality and meteorological conditions, was not seen as the best option, according to the center.
In an email to La Plata County officials obtained by the Herald, the center’s program manager and research meteorologist Kenneth Howard questioned why the county was selecting the Southern Ute site.
“The new site would be a ‘no go’ in my opinion as the blockage is severe and would be detrimental for accurate radar-derived products,” Howard wrote. “Curious why the original site (Bridge Timber Mountain) is no longer in play?”
Howard did not respond to a request for comment.
In previous interviews, La Plata County officials touted the benefits of the Southern Ute site, which has existing infrastructure, such as electricity and road access, making it less costly to build.
But the news of the selected site did have a fallout.
Ken Curtis, manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District, said the district has considered dropping out of the partnership because the proposed location would not cover the Dolores River watershed.
“It took away from what they can see in our watershed,” he said. “We’re waiting to see what happens, but it does look doubtful we’ll be participating (if the Southern Ute site is chosen).”
One shot to do it rightWolff, who was not reappointed this fall to the Southwestern Water Conservation District after serving more than a decade, started raising issues about the selected site to county officials.
Yes, Bridge Timber Mountain may be costly to get up and running, he said. But it’s the best decision in the long run, serving the biggest area, and therefore most residents. And, this is the one chance to get radar right for the region.
Wolff added that an additional location near Durango-La Plata County Airport proved to provide better coverage than the Southern Ute site, though not as far and wide as Bridge Timber Mountain.
“There was real support to get the right site,” Wolff said. “No one in the emergency field wants radar that says it’s raining overhead. You need to see the entire Four Corners to see if major weather systems are coming this way.”
Bruce Whitehead, who served as executive director of the Southwestern Water Conservation District before retiring in 2019, said the Southern Ute location wasn’t among the top five sites identified in the analysis.
“I was concerned when I saw the proposed location,” he said.
Whitehead said the conservation district, which represents nine Southwest Colorado counties, believed there could be enough partners to secure funding for radar atop Bridge Timber Mountain.
“That truly was the ideal spot,” he said. “To me, if we’re going to do it, you have one shot at it. I know there’s hurdles with (Bridge Timber Mountain) but this is the only time we’re going to have a chance to do this.”
Benefits far reachingAside from tracking incoming storms that could have an immediate impact, such as flash flooding, the new radar system brings a host of other benefits to weather researchers and water districts.
With the Southwest drying out because of a prolonged drought, which is exacerbated by effects of climate change, having a better understanding of watersheds is going to become critical.
“In the next few years, there’s going to be incredible pressure on the Colorado River and upper basin states,” Knowlton said. “This radar would help benefit water agencies to see the storms that occur in individual drainage basins.”
The Dolores Water Conservancy’s Curtis, too, said the district’s interest in radar would be to help time cloud seeding, when a propane-fired generator sends silver iodide into the atmosphere before and during winter storms.
“Cloud seeding depends on where a storm forms, (and) we’re up in the air on that (currently),” he said. “It’s a tough job trying to find the perfect spot (for radar), but I’m hoping they do.”
Whitehead said bringing radar to a blind spot can also help water managers capture flows during summer rainstorms, and even help improve administering water rights throughout the year.
“In terms of drought, you’re interested in your water supply and real-time information,” he said. “Having better science is key through all this.”
Path forwardLa Plata County Manager Stevens said there’s no timeline for the radar project now that construction on the Southern Ute site has been put on hold.
“It’s not as easy as picking a mountain top and saying, ‘That’s the perfect mountain top, let’s move forward,’” he said. “Someone owns that mountain top, and once you get agreement to use it, you need power, telecommunications and a road to it.”
The previous Board of Community Commissioners (Clyde Church, Gwen Lachelt and Julie Westendorff) gave Stevens the authority to make the final call on the location, though Stevens said he is not making the decision alone.
“I’m not going to make this decision in a vacuum,” he said. “We’ll rely on experts.”
Newly elected commissioners Marsha Porter-Norton and Matt Salka deferred all questions to Stevens. Commissioner Clyde Church did not return a call seeking comment.
“We are hearing from some concerned residents in La Plata County,” Salka said. “(The location) is something we are reviewing and looking forward to finalizing. I’d love to have this happen sooner rather than later.”
Brett McPherson, a DOLA spokesman, said this week the $1.7 million grant expires in 2024. He said the agency is aware of the conversations surrounding the radar’s location, but will leave it up to county officials.
“In the end, the county will own and operate the radar system, and DOLA believes the county will complete all due diligence in evaluating the final radar location,” he said.
The Colorado Department of Transportation also is contributing $100,000 to the new radar station, which the agency said will help improve weather forecasting capabilities, especially for the maintenance division.
But aside from the onetime cost of construction, La Plata County had planned to set up a group of partners to help pay for continued maintenance and operation of the system, hoping to raise about $30,000 a year.
But attracting partners will be contingent on serving the most people. And that’s going to rely on the best site, Knowlton said.
Stevens said by putting the project on hold, it will assure that process happens.
“It’s incredibly important we get the right location,” he said. “We need to take the time and thoroughly review and assess any potential site.”