The people who are most worried by the abnormal lack of snowfall in this high, Rocky Mountain range country are not skiers or resort developers but ranchers and farmers.
The snow that usually provides moisture and a thick, insulating cushion against the cold has not come this year and ranchers are feeling the impact. Some of them can no longer find water for their animals by chopping holes in the ice of frozen streams with axes. They are attempting to move the animals to well or, in some cases, haul water to them.
In several mountain communities whole towns have been without water when pipes froze underneath the bare earth.
If company is any consolation however, the upland ranchers of the Rockies can take comfort in the fact that they are not alone in their hard-ships. From the Mississippi River to California, the nation is in the grip of one of the worst winter droughts in memory.
Months of dryness, combined with very cold temperatures, have damaged pasture from Montana to Texas. Department of Agriculture officials have begun to express concern for the country's main wheat corp, which is planted in the fall and remains in the ground through the winter. Ground moisture levels are far below normal.
State officials in California, meanwhile, say the continued lack of rainfall there foreshadows the worst drought in 100 years by this summer.
The most worrisome aspect of the drought, officials say, is the continued lack of snow on Colorado's mountain ranges. Melting snow from Colorado peakes is a vital economic resource that irrigates farmland from the Corn Belt to the Imperial Valley of California, and feeds city water supplies as far as away as Los Angeles.
Major rivers such as the Colorado, the Rio Grande, the Arkansas and the South Platte carry trillions of gallons of melted snow to Mexico and 11 states each year, California, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Oklahoma, Texas, Wyoming, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska all benefit from the water. Farmers tap the rivers carrying it to irrigate croplands that otherwise would be useless.
At this point, Colorado's snow pack is about one-third of normal, say federal authorities. State officials, already concerned about heavy losses to the state's economy from canceled bookings at ski resorts, say recent light snowfalls at least have improved skiing at Vail and other resorts, though not at Aspen.
"We're not pushing the panic button yet because a whopper snowstorm could do the trick," said Lee White, an assistant to Gov. Richard Lamm.
"I've seen it happen time and again that late snows in April, may and even June pull us through," said Kent Stugler, who has traveled the state buying cattle for packing houses for more than 30 years.
However, officials acknowledge that the amount of snow that the mountains get from now on will be crucial for the entire Southwest, an arid area in which water and water rights alway have played a major role in economic development.
For example, the major snow-fed river - the Colorado, which starts in Colorado and flows to Mexico - carries an average of 10 billion gallons a day. Nearly half of the water taken from the river is used by california for irrigating its southern agricultural valleys and for pumping into reserviors that supply Los Angeles" drinking water.
Enough water to cover 41 million acres to a depth of one foot is stored in two huge downstream reserviors of the Colorado River, at Utah's Lake Powell and at Lake Meade on the Nevada-Arizona border.
Cailfornia, Arizona and Nevada have a legal claim to a share of that water under interstate agreements dating back to 1922, and there is enough water to take care of the needs of those downstream states for several years.
But if these reserviors become depleted by a long period of inadequate snowfall upstream, development plans could be jeopardized all through the Southwest. For instance, Arizona is planning to use large additional amounts of the stored water starting in 1985, in a project that will add to water supplies in the central part of the state.
Ironically, Colorado's predicament is much more serious even though the state relies on hundreds of small mountain reservoirs to catch the annual snow runoff in May and June State officials say these reservoirs are running dry. The water is piped through tunnels to the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains, where it is needed for drinking supplies and irrigation.
"We're in deep trouble because we have very little capacity to hold this water more than a year. We live from year to year. We need the snow and it just isn't there," said Felix Sparks, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. He said that Wyoming Utah, and New Mexico, whose mountains also feed the Colorado, face a smiliar threat.