Water—or lack thereof—is a familiar topic of conversation in Colorado, where the natural resource is scarce and water rights are a complicated matter often stretching back generations. Typically, that dialogue has a negative slant: Drought! Wildfires! The EPA’s recent Gold King Mine disaster! But there is some good news—dare we say really good news. Remember all that rain we had earlier this summer? Well it didn’t just feel like a lot of precipitation. For the first time in six years, 97 percent of the state is drought-free. (For comparison, 100 percent of the state was experiencing drought in 2013.) According to the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), “statewide May 2015 was the wettest May since record keeping began in 1895.”
That means Coloradans have a lot of reasons to celebrate. “Statewide, we’re in the best situation we’ve been in since 2011,” says Taryn Finnessey, a climate change risk management specialist with CWCB. “The rains really have not only alleviated drought conditions, but, in most portions of the state, they’ve eliminated them. And as far as reservoirs, we’re doing great. We’re better off than we were last year in all portions of the state.” Per the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Colorado reservoir storage was at 117 percent of average at the end of July, the most recent info available; soil moisture is up, which typically makes farmers and ranchers do a happy dance; and cooler weather has also helped reduce demand on our water resources.
So we’re not California (yay!), but that doesn’t mean we should start watering our lawns at all hours of the day and taking 30-minute showers. “The message we always say is we live in a semi-arid state, and nine out of every 10 years, drought affects some portion of Colorado, so it is still very important to use water resources wisely,” Finnessey says.
Of course, recent news that “this year’s El Niño weather pattern could be the most powerful on record” leaves just one question on the tip of Coloradans’ tongues: What’s that mean for the upcoming ski season? “An El Niño year does typically mean more moisture for Colorado,” Finnessey says, “But I don’t know that we have the information yet to determine whether or not that’s going to fall in the mountains or along the Front Range.”
Unfortunately, Klaus Wolter, a local climate scientist, says Colorado’s highest elevations typically don’t benefit from the system. “It’s the flip side of El Niño,” he says. But it’s not all bad news: “Typically what happens is you go through the winter and if you come out just slightly below normal, which is a very typical outcome, there is a good chance you might still play catch-up in the spring,” Wolter says. (As if you needed another excuse to go spring skiing.) He also notes that our last big El Niño systems brought sizeable storms to the Eldora, Winter Park, and Berthoud Pass areas, plus the Front Range. And, hey, that snowfall could mean a day off school for the kiddos and a work-free day for you—perfect timing for a trip to the mountains, whether or not it’s a powder day.