At least 54% of the state now is experiencing drought conditions, compared to 100% this time last year. But record-breaking heat and a dry winter could mean conditions worsen, a climatologist says.
As drought loosened its grip across nearly half Colorado in the past year, parts of Colorado could see conditions worsen in the coming months due to an autumn and winter that experts say will be hotter and drier than normal.
About 52% of the state’s geographic area now faces some type of drought — ranging from abnormally dry to exceptional drought. This time last year, the entire state was plagued by the lack of rain, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. While the drought was somewhat eased by the summer monsoon season, already punishing drought conditions have begun to worsen, with the most severe impacts hitting the Western Slope.
Record-breaking heat coupled with a dry winter forecast could mean that drought in Colorado will likely get worse in the coming months, according to Peter Goble, a climatologist with the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University.
“The outlook is not encouraging,” Goble said. “It looks like summer is going to hang on here for a little while and as we look forward to winter, (we’re) looking at a high probability of another La Nina year,” he said, the second La Nina winter in a row.
“In recent history, those double-dip La Nina years — or years we have it come back a second time — have been quite dry across the center of the country and only really wet in the northwest and northeast corners,” Goble said. “If that pattern were to resurface, we could see drought conditions worsen over the next three to nine months.”
Record-breaking temperatures in the forecast don’t help either, he said. In Denver, record-high temperatures are forecast for the end of the week, with highs in the upper 90s.
Colorado also saw its fourth warmest June through August period on record, Goble said.
“With our overall warming trend, it makes it so that the water we do get disappears more quickly,” Goble said.
While winter and spring precipitation tends to bring the most relief from drought conditions, monsoonal moisture throughout the summer brought “marginal improvements” and put the state in slightly better condition than last year, Goble said.
In September 2020, about 55% of the state, largely west of the Continental Divide, saw extreme or exceptional drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Under those conditions, there’s high risk for large wildfires, reservoirs are extremely low, water restrictions are implemented and fish die due to increased water temperatures.
The spring’s moisture and summer’s rains are to thank for this year’s less severe wildfire season, Goble said. The moisture in April in May, when the growing season is ramping up, was also critical for farmers on the Eastern Plains, Goble said.
Now, about 15% of the state is seeing conditions of the severity recorded last September, maps show.
Despite the decrease, Goble said he’s still concerned about the state’s current drought conditions and for what’s to come.
“The biggest thing that concerns me is, as good as the precipitation was in western Colorado over the summer, we didn’t see that big of a recovery to the overall water supply system or our lakes, streams and reservoirs,” he said.
In August, the federal government declared a water shortage on the Colorado River for the first time ever causing cutbacks for Arizona and Nevada. Experts warn that water restrictions for Coloradans are on the horizon.
“If we do continue to have these drier-than-normal winters, that will eventually have implications for how water can be used in Colorado. That’s definitely a situation that we will be watching as winter unfolds,” he said.
In the east, worsening drought conditions also raise concerns regarding the winter wheat planting season. Without a layer of moisture in the top level of soil, it becomes harder for seeds to stay put and can affect how much grows, he said.
“It definitely makes it more difficult getting the seeds down and it can have implications for how much grows,” Goble said.
While a good snow year, which typically is the most effective for erasing long-term drought, doesn’t look likely, Goble can hope.
“We’ll certainly be rooting for that,” he said.