98% of CO in Drought – Ouch!

98 percent of Colorado in a drought, say CSU climatologists

POSTED:   04/03/2012 01:00:00 AM MDT
UPDATED:   04/03/2012 07:57:04 AM MDT

By Monte Whaley, Photo by RJ Sangosti
The Denver Post

CSU climatologists say drought conditions have spread across 98 percent of Colorado. (RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)

Scarred by destructive wildfires and an arid March, Colorado needs a cold, wet shot of moisture. State water managers are begging for it. They are already eyeing dwindling snowpacks and wondering whether water restrictions should be clamped on the state’s towns and cities as warm temperatures persist. “This always makes us nervous,” said Aurora Water spokesman Greg Baker.
Many reservoir levels are actually in better shape than they were in 2002 — Colorado’s last significant drought year, Baker said. But Baker said he worries that a hot, dry 2012 would drain reservoirs and other water sources so much that not much could be left for 2013.
“It’s really next year we are concerned about,” he said. “We need the water — every little bit helps.”
Denver Water gets about half of its supply from the Colorado River and half from the South Platte River, and snowpack levels in both basins are very low. According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, both basins are at about half their typical averages for this time of year.
Officials have yet to implement mandatory water restrictions but could if Denver Water system reservoir levels drop.
“During the drought 10 years ago, water providers learned it’s difficult for reservoir storage to survive multiple-year droughts,” said Jim Lochhead, Front Range Water Council chairman and chief executive and manager of Denver Water.
“As a result, municipalities pushed more comprehensive conservation efforts,” Lochhead said, “and we’re seeing those positive results today. But conservation alone is not enough. We need strategies that also include reuse and new supplies.”
The 2002 drought saw the most devastating wildfire season in state history. Last week, a 4,140-acre blaze in Jefferson County killed three people and destroyed 27 homes.
Against that backdrop, climatologists at Colorado State University confirmed Monday what many Coloradans already suspected —

Dry conditions have left much of Colorado, such as this abandoned farm in Crowley County, brown.(Andy Cross, Denver Post file)

almost the entire state is consumed by drought. 
About 98 percent of the state is experiencing varying levels of drought, according to CSU, with the most severe in the Arkansas Basin, where drought levels range from D1, or “moderate,” to D3, or “extreme.” The Texas drought from last summer is also still affecting Colorado, CSU said.
A newer area of D2, or “severe,” drought has recently been added to the Yampa/White Basin in northwestern Colorado because of insufficient snowpack this season.
Most of the northeastern plains are designated as “abnormally dry.”
Conditions have changed drastically since October, when 60 percent of the state didn’t have any drought categories. That has shrunk to 2 percent, said Nolan Doesken, the state climatologist who is based at CSU.
“Even though the reservoir levels are still strong and northeast Colorado soil moisture is still pretty good, we just don’t usually start out quite this warm and dry at this time — so this is very concerning,” Doesken said.
He also compared this year to 2002, that last big drought year.
“In 2002, things didn’t seem that bad at the end of March, as March had been quite cool, with some snow,” Doesken said.
April 2002 was a lot like March 2012, he added, saying there was scarcely any precipitation statewide and the snowpack disappeared without producing much runoff.
“I don’t recall much fire issues until mid-April 2002, but then things started going crazy,” Doesken said.
There is time for Colorado to improve, however, as the state’s cool, wet season continues into mid-May in southern Colorado and into the first or second week of June in northern Colorado.
“We typically need — and often receive — about three major widespread cold and soaking storms during this coming 10- to 11-week period, along with increasing amounts of scattered thunderstorms, especially from late April onward,” Doesken said.
The Colorado Climate Center at CSU is responsible for reporting Colorado’s conditions to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which officially tracks drought conditions across the United States.
Officials in several cities said they will consult with water managers and decide by mid-April or early May whether tougher water restrictions are needed.
But if March is any indication, plenty of Colorado municipalities might need new water plans to get through the summer, said Wendy Ryan, a research associate at the Colorado Climate Center.
“In Fort Collins, we had the hottest and driest March on record,” Ryan said. “This is the first time we’ve ever had only a trace of precipitation for March. No years have had zero.”

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