At some point this spring, you probably heard someone ponder out loud—or even began to wonder yourself—whether Denver had suddenly been transported to the Pacific Northwest. That’s because the Front Range has experienced an unusual string of wet weather.
Since the beginning of January, Denver has gotten 9.78 inches of rain, the wettest start to a year since 1983. Typically, the Mile High City gets 5.49 inches of rain by the time we reach this point in the calendar. While all the precipitation has made for some dreary Mondays, it has greatly reduced drought concern in the area—at least for the short term.
At the start of the year, 100 percent of the state was in the midst of a moderate drought. The newest drought monitor map released last Thursday shows that much of the eastern part of the state has been downgraded to just abnormally dry conditions. In the last 30 days, some parts of that region have seen double and triple the amount of precipitation normal for this time of year.
Drought comparison in Colorado.
— ⛈Rain or☀️Shine I’m Andy Stein (@AndySteinWx) May 20, 2021
But in areas like Grand Junction and Durango—basically, anywhere west of the Continental Divide—relief from the drought hasn’t come. That half of the state picked up just a fraction of the normal amount of precipitation for this time of year, leaving the region with an extreme water deficit. “We’ve been in this for quite some time,” Aldis Strautins, hydrologist at the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, says, “and we haven’t been able to pull ourselves out.”
A dry summer and fall last year meant that the state was already going to have low streamflow this year. The dry winter on the Western Slope only exacerbated the problem. “Even if we had an average snowpack this past winter, we would still have below normal water volumes in our rivers thanks to the ground soil taking up so much of that moisture,” says Strautins.
As the snowpack continues to melt, the water numbers are pretty startling. Around Durango, Pagosa Springs, and Crested Butte, the amount of water produced by the snowpack is about 25 to 50 percent below normal for this time of the year. In areas around Grand Junction, Aspen, and Steamboat Springs those values are 50 to 80 percent below normal levels. Across the Western Slope, that spells trouble for water reservoirs and farmers who utilize that precious resource.
The Bureau of Land Management has already reduced the number of livestock on the land it manages in the region to try and conserve resources. Ranchers and farmers are also concerned about a lack of water and vegetation. “The amount of water in our large reservoirs will help us last through this drought period,” Strutins says, “but if we continue with this dry trend, some smaller reservoirs will dry up and we may have to reduce our water use in some areas.”
It will also likely take quite some time to recover from this dry spell. “There are some areas in Western Colorado that need eight to 10 inches of precipitation just to saturate the top layer of soil,” Strautin says.
More precipitation would be needed on top of that to begin filling reservoirs. “A good thunderstorm season and maybe a few tropical systems will help the drought but that may not be the end all for this particular situation,” Strautin says. “What really helps us out here in the west is the snowpack. A good summer rain season followed by a good winter season next year will help us fill the reservoirs in 2022.”
Drought conditions haven’t been unusual in Colorado in recent years. At the end of 2002, 100 percent of Colorado was in extreme drought, the second worst category for water concerns. Right now, about 80 percent of the state fits that category. During that year, close to 40 percent of the Centennial State experienced exceptional drought (the worst category). Currently, 25 percent of the state is experiencing that level of extreme water shortage. In 2013, more than 20 percent of the state dealt with exceptional drought.
The Climate Prediction Center just released an updated summer forecast, which shows that Colorado has a 50 to 70 percent chance of seeing above normal temperatures these next few months, as well as a 30 to 50 percent chance of seeing below normal precipitation during that time.
As you plan your summer adventures, know that you’ll encounter subpar conditions for most water activities. Any camping that you are planning in the western part of the state will also be met with fire restrictions. You can check fire conditions online. “People can still recreate near and on the water but don’t expect a banner year of high peaks,” Strautin says. “I think it’s going to be a much-shortened season.”