There’s been so much snow in this mountain town that the city ran out of places to put it.
The 70,000 cubic yards of it plowed from the streets since November have spilled from the city’s giant snow storage lot into a neighboring lot that normally holds construction debris.
Condominiums and hotels have had to hire trucks to haul away the snow. Motorists inch through intersections because walls of snow line the streets and block views. Even an unusually early spring melt has caused problems. One student had to be dug out after being buried by a mound of snow that fell from the roof of a local high school.
Steamboat’s winter bounty -- 373 inches so far -- has drawn skiers from all over the world, keeping hotels at capacity and cash registers ringing at stores all over this tourist town of 10,000. Though not yet a record, the snowfall is already well above the average 325 inches in a year.
And, as is often the case, a winter storm watch was in effect Saturday night.
Residents view the abundant snowfall as a mixed blessing. It is welcome moisture, but “it’s work,” said Dale Hebeard, 60, who uses a bulldozer to clear the driveway at his ranch just outside town. “I could have done with a little less.”
This has been a feast-orfamine winter in the West.
In the northern Rockies, near-record snowfalls have been a financial boon to ski towns and provided a respite from the drought that has plagued the region since 2001. But in the Southwest, the drought is worsening. Santa Fe, N.M., has had its driest winter since 1890. Towns in northern New Mexico have converted snowshoe competitions into footraces, and the Arizona Department of Game and Fish is hauling water to thirsty wildlife.
But in central and northern Colorado this month, there’s no trace of drought -- and definitely not on the streets here, which alternate between slush and ice.
Steamboat Springs -- named for a now-silent spring that was said to have made the sound of a chugging steamboat -- stretches along the banks of the Yampa River in northwestern Colorado, sandwiched into a narrow valley by heavily wooded mountain slopes. The town prides itself on being a low-key, family-friendly alternative to renowned ski destinations like Aspen or Vail and promotes itself at Ski Town, U.S.A.
Due to assiduous plowing, four-lane Lincoln Street in downtown Steamboat is largely snow-free, even though giant mounds of plowed snow are stashed in the odd parking lot or alley along the main artery.
But step into the residential streets, lined with mobile homes, modest log-cabin-style houses or newer pseudo-Victorian resort homes, and it’s a different story. Despite the recent warm weather, the sidewalks are lined with craggy walls of snow up to 6 feet high. Cars remain buried in driveways; drifts block first-floor windows. Because the snow depth is uneven, there is an occasional brown patch of lawn -- the only relief from the snow, which is stained black by the volcanic ash used to coat the streets and prevent icing.
The most remarkable sight is the city’s mountain of stored snow just past downtown, off the main highway. That’s where city trucks have hauled the snow they removed from the streets since it started falling in November.
In a normal year, light snowfalls early in the season melt away, but a late-fall cold snap and persistent storms buried Steamboat before Christmas.
The town had a moment of panic last month when the public works department announced that, for the first time in living memory, the giant lot where it usually dumps snow was full.
Fortunately, the neighboring debris lot was vacant, so the extra snow simply toppled into that space. It now towers over the storage sheds and maintenance facilities in the area, a three-story-high mountain of blackish snow.
“The reality of how much snow actually exists here is hard to convey,” said Public Works Director James Weber as he stood in front of the pile.
Although March is normally the snowiest month in Steamboat, Weber said the longer days and warmer weather were melting much of the snowfall, so he had become less concerned about running out of storage space.
For many longtime residents, this year’s 30-plus feet of snow reminds them of the pre-drought glory days. “This is what it used to be like,” said Karen Burin, 59, chipping away ice outside her house and recalling how the plowed snow used to routinely be so high she couldn’t see her children once they walked out of the front door.
Burin and other Steamboat veterans hope the return of a true northern Colorado winter will help fend off the steady upscaling of their out-of-the-way ski town. The hills are dotted with rows of new vacation homes and condominiums, real estate prices are creeping up and the population has begun to swell. Many of those newcomers arrived during the drought, when the winters were milder.
“We need a few more of these winters, to expel those folks,” said Georgiana Nelson, a 32-year resident who works in the local school district nutrition office.
This winter has sent at least one new arrival packing. Mark Arnoldi moved from northern Virginia to Steamboat Springs in January, but he’s convinced he won’t survive another snow-laden winter here.
“You figure you’ll get used to it, but you just want it to go away,” Arnoldi, 25, who works at the local Ford dealership. His biggest beef is that the snow blocks the roads into the mountains that ring the town, limiting chances to go exploring.
This winter pushed even some Steamboat veterans to their breaking point.
“You wake up in the morning, you find you’ve got a foot to shovel,” said Earl Kent, 33, who’s lived in Steamboat 18 years.
Waiting for a bus at a downtown street corner, Kent looked up at fat flakes falling from a leaden sky.
“This is March,” he said glumly. “Everywhere it’s springtime. Here, we’ve got two more months of snow.”