RECENT SNOWSTORMS ARE BARELY SCRATCHING THE SURFACE OF COLORADO’S ONGOING DROUGHT ~ The Colorado Sun

The state needed an above-average snow year this winter to reverse the drought’s momentum. Forecasts for the next few months aren’t optimistic, either.

Lucy Haggard

Mar 4, 2021

Paonia Reservoir sits covered in snow in Gunnison County, Colorado. Monday Jan. 25, 2021. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado is no longer technically 100% in drought. And conditions in some areas of the state have slightly improved as recent spring snows have left deeper-than-forecast drifts. But don’t get too excited just yet. 

Last week’s snowstorms across the Front Range were enough to downgrade some areas from “extreme” drought to “severe,” according to the latest national drought monitor report released Thursday by the University of Nebraska. And the previous week’s map had downgraded much of the San Luis Valley from “moderate” drought to “abnormally dry.”

That’s the good news. The bad news: 98.57% of the state is still in drought, to varying degrees. And experts aren’t confident that conditions will improve anytime soon. 

Unlike tornadoes, hurricanes or other weather events, drought is a phenomenon that builds over time, and its effects compound as it persists. Brian Fuchs, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center and the author of this week’s drought monitor report, noted that some regions of the state, particularly the southwest, have been drier than average for multiple years. This time last year, 45.33% of the state was in drought, none of which was classified in the worst two categories. 

As of Thursday’s report, 56.66% of the state’s drought is “extreme” or “exceptional.” Colorado’s current drought conditions are the result of a combination of earlier-than-average snowmelt last spring, a lack of summer monsoons and a warm, dry autumn that led the state to use even more of its water reserves. Add this winter’s lackluster snowfall and it becomes a tricky situation. 

“If it took a number of years to get into drought, what will it take over the next several years to come out of drought?” Fuchs said. 

Answering that question is a complicated task. The order of operations is important, too; soils need to rehydrate first, soaking up runoff like a sponge, before the water can continue on to rivers and streams. 

In an ideal scenario, the state would have received above-average snowpack this winter to saturate dried-out soils, store up enough moisture for better runoff this spring and summer and refill reservoirs. But snow-water equivalent estimates for Colorado’s eight alpine river basins are at least a little below their 30-year averages, according to reports from the National Resource Conservation Service. (The amount of liquid water held in snow can vary, so measuring snow depth alone won’t accurately gauge how much runoff will occur when warmer weather arrives.

The spring months are often perceived as Colorado’s snowiest time of year, but Assistant State Climatologist Becky Bolinger says that’s really only true for the Front Range. Higher elevations should be receiving sizable moisture loads all winter long, and despite recent storms, models for the next few months are not encouraging.

“Unfortunately it’s little battles that are being won in a bigger war,” Bolinger said. “One winter can be prepared for, and that’s why we have reservoirs and that’s why we monitor this. A winter like this, where we came in already struggling is definitely going to be a bigger concern.”

The state has already activated the agricultural and municipal parts of its drought contingency plan, and Front Range cities are warning residents that they may need to cut back their use this spring. 

Negotiations will begin soon in the yearslong process to reallocate the Colorado River basin’s flows among the seven states, two countries and multiple tribes that rely on its water. The past 20 years have seen increasingly frequent drought conditions due to climate change, and Bolinger says it may become impossible to recover from these water deficits.

“It’s something that can’t be made up,” Bolinger said. “These compacts that they wrote in the 1920s just really aren’t appropriate for what our climate and water situation actually looks like today.”

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