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La Plata County settles on location for radar

Equipment will likely look like a four-legged water tower with large golf ball on top
Brad Riddle, operations manager at the Durango-La Plata County Airport, looks over the airport’s weather station in November. La Plata County has decided to locate a new radar system at the airport after years of debate. The $1.7 million grant the county received from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs to construct the system has a deadline of March 2024. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

After years with little progress, La Plata County has selected a final site for a new radar system.

The county plans to construct a radar tower at Durango-La Plata County Airport with the goal of having the system operational by March 2024. The site was agreed to by project stakeholders, including federal, state and tribal authorities.

After about three years of debate and with a looming deadline, the county thinks the airport is the best location to maximize coverage while operating within its budget.

“I’d say we achieved consensus,” said County Manager Chuck Stevens. “If I had no shelf life or expiration date on the grant, then maybe it would be worth looking at more sites in the county. But the reality is that the clock is ticking and we have until March 2024 to spend this money.”

In 2019, the Colorado Department of Local Affairs awarded La Plata County a $1.7 million grant to address the lingering problem of radar.

For years, Southwest Colorado and the Four Corners have lacked sufficient radar coverage to accurately track localized weather in the area. Radar from the National Weather Service in Grand Junction is partly blocked by the mountains and cannot pick up storms in the Four Corners below 28,000 feet, leaving the region in the dark.

The absence of sufficient radar has proved challenging for forecasters, firefighters, the La Plata County Office of Emergency Management, public land agencies and the airport, among others.

“When we’re anticipating rolls and waves of precipitation for our own snow removal purposes, it’s pretty tricky, and we’ve historically had to really battle (the radar),” said Tony Vicari, director of aviation for DRO.

A model run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Severe Storms Laboratory shows the radar coverage from Durango-La Plata County Airport. Blues and greens are good, yellows, oranges and reds fair, and purples and blacks bad, according to La Plata County Manager Chuck Stevens. Outlines show county boundaries. (Courtesy of La Plata County)

The county and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe first announced in September 2020 that they had partnered on a site on tribal lands along U.S. Highway 550 south of Durango near Bondad. But after some of those involved in the project objected to the radar coverage of the location, the county stepped away from the site and reconsidered other options.

La Plata County in conjunction with experts at the National Severe Storms Laboratory Center and stakeholder groups narrowed down the potential sites to six before finally settling on the airport.

Stevens made the recommendation to the county commissioners on Wednesday and the commissioners supported the decision, kick-starting the final process.

County staff members with the help of state and federal partners will now submit a request for proposal by the end of March, with the selection of a contractor likely coming sometime this summer.

Site preparations will begin soon after, said Ted Holteen, spokesman for La Plata County. In between those milestones, the county will have to go through many other steps, including entering into an agreement with the airport, proceeding through the county’s land-use process and working with the Federal Aviation Administration.

Stevens said the airport site is clearly the best location for the radar tower.

“The experts agree that this (location) is more than adequate. It more than covers and accomplishes the mission for the region, not (just) La Plata County,” he said. “When you weigh the other factors like infrastructure, accessibility and coverage, it clearly emerged as the top site.”

David Jorgensen of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration watches an approaching storm as a Doppler radar system tracks it near the Durango-La Plata County Airport in January 2019. La Plata County’s radar system will be tied into the “national mosaic,” which will allow the National Weather Service and other entities to access the data. (Durango Herald file)

The county and its partner stakeholders considered a variety of metrics when deciding on a location. Coverage was among the most important, but they also considered the availability of power and broadband, road access, property ownership, environmental assessments and interference with other towers and equipment.

In the past, Bridge Timber Mountain southwest of Durango has been touted as the ideal location with the best coverage of the region. But the site didn’t come through in any of the other categories, Stevens said.

The county would have had to build a road, power and broadband infrastructure for the site. An initial estimate for power to the location came in at $750,000 to $1.25 million even before the pandemic exacerbated supply chain and labor issues. Stevens was preparing an about $10,000 engineering study to see if the county could put in a road from the west when he and the county decided to once again consider all of their options.

“We did the due diligence, and when we really tried to quantify it and weigh all the sites on an even playing field, it just doesn’t pan out,” Stevens said.

The other four sites didn’t meet the cut for one reason or another. One didn’t have the necessary coverage, and was in a wildlife corridor and would require a lengthy environmental assessment.

The airport finally emerged as the favorite with immediate power, broadband and access.

The county must improve the broadband, Stevens said, but an added bonus of the airport is that the two sites on the property the county and the airport are most heavily considering feature disturbed areas, which should streamline the environmental assessment.

A 2017 map shows radar coverage across the U.S. The new radar system in La Plata County will decrease coverage gaps, helping the aviation industry, weather forecasters, water managers and others. (Courtesy of National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration)

Once the radar tower is operational, it will be tied into the “national mosaic,” which will allow the National Weather Service and other entities to access the data, Stevens said.

The difference it will make will be profound.

Better radar will help the Southwestern Water Conservation District stay ahead of winter storms and react to seed clouds to increase snowpack.

“Since we are one of the big partners in weather modification around here, the radar will give us a lot better vision of those storms coming in,” said Steve Wolff, general manager of the Southwestern Water Conservation District.

For Vicari and the airport, the new radar will have numerous advantages.

“From an aviation perspective, it really homes in our ability to forecast convective events as well as significant snow events that would impact the area,” he said. “We are responsible for the snow removal and ultimate safety of the runway and other pavement surfaces at the airport, and for as long as I’ve been here, and really the history of the airport, the relative lack of quality radar coverage in the area has made weather forecasting challenging.”

The radar will also help airlines better adapt to weather as they shuffle crews and airplanes around their complex logistical networks.

As the chosen site, DRO is already working with the FAA on possible locations for the tower, which will likely look like a four-legged water tower with a large golf ball instead of a tank on top. The airport has already submitted airspace studies to the FAA to ensure the tower doesn’t have any negative effects on air travel, and those studies are currently under review, Vicari said.

The radar system will have an annual operating budget of about $40,000, but partners will share in that cost, Stevens said. With strong commitments from stakeholders, Stevens said he would be surprised if the county had to take on more than half of the costs.

Radar from the National Weather Service in Grand Junction cannot pick up storms in the Four Corners below 28,000 feet, a problem since weather in the area can form at much lower elevations. For years, the region has been left in the dark with Southwest Colorado and the Four Corners lacking sufficient radar coverage to accurately track localized weather in the area. (Durango Herald illustration, file)

In addition to the $1.7 million grant from the state, La Plata County has also saved another $400,000 of its own money to cover the costs of the project.

With the pandemic continuing to wreak havoc on supply chains and labor, the project could go over the $2.1 million budget, but with preliminary commitments, the county thinks local, state or federal partners would help see it through.

As the 2024 deadline nears, pressure is mounting on the county to execute the project and bring the desperately needed infrastructure to Southwest Colorado. With a lot left to do, Stevens is nervous.

“With supply chain issues and with construction delays that we’re already experiencing because of COVID-19, I’m nervous,” he said. “I’m nervous that we have 25 months (and) that we can spend this in time.

“I think we can do it.”

ahannon@durangoherald.com

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