Early signs indicate the worst drought in three centuries may ease this summer, but experts say it may be years until the land recovers, meaning farmers who irrigate are still at risk of a poor growing season.
According to the Natural Resource Conservation Service, the snowpack in Northwest Colorado is at a 92 percent of a 30-year average.
The state has had six straight below-average winters, and until heavy snowfall hit in late February, it looked like this winter would be the same.
Winter snow is important because it provides about 80 percent of the water in reservoirs, lakes and rivers.
But because the soil is so dry, much of the snowpack may be absorbed into aquifers and parched soils and foliage before it reaches water ways.
Colorado State University Moffat County Extension Agent John Balliette compares the process to filling a bowl that's holding a sponge. The sponge, he said, has to be full before water will begin filling the bowl.
"Even if we do reach 100 percent snowpack, it's going to take some time to recover. The soils are pretty dry," he said. "It will take several years of normal precipitation to recover."
Even if snowpack is normal this year, runoff will not be.
Colorado receives the bulk of its snowfall before April. Last April, the state was a 52 percent snowpack, the lowest since 1977. There is about 37 percent more snowfall this year than there was last year at this time. Precipitation measurements during February were 115 percent of average in the Yampa, White and North Platte River Basins. Streamflow forecasts have all improved from last month, but are well below average for most sites. They range from 66 percent of average on the White River near Meeker, to 88 percent of average on the Yampa River at Steamboat Springs.
The continued to be some of the wettest basins in the state. Experts expect them to hit above average snowpack by April 1.
"We're off to a good start," said Paulette Balliette with the NRCS. "It depends on the summer precipitation and it depends on the temperatures. If it doesn't get too hot too soon."
While the improved snowpack percentages are encouraging, the state continues to face water shortages for the remainder of this year, according to NRCS.
"The below average runoff expected in 2003 will not substantially improve reservoir storage volumes this year," stated an NRCS release. "Given the below-average forecasts for most of the state, water users should anticipate shortages throughout the remainder of the year."
For farmers who irrigate that means planting crops early to take advantage of the spring runoff before it becomes a trickle.
Some cities are making that a law.
Residents and businesses in Aurora won't be allowed to plant trees, shrubs, flowers, vegetables or lawns after May 3. The ban applies to perennials and annuals.
A lack of snow has strained the city's 12 reservoirs, which are 27 percent full compared to an average of 65 percent this time of year. Leaders worry whether enough water will be available this summer for Aurora's 300,000 water customers.
"Basically a drought is a very slow-acting natural disaster," city spokeswoman Melissa Elliott said. "While our residents and businesses met conservation goals last year, we haven't received the snowfall we need to fill our reservoirs."
Last year, farmers and ranchers nationwide received $937 million in drought aid -- $185 million more than promised because more producers than expected applied for the subsidy. The additional money came from a fund intended to buy food for school lunch programs and food pantries for the needy.
An Agriculture Department spokesman, Kevin Herglotz, acknowledged that the farm assistance "ended up costing a little bit more" than planned. But he contended that the emergency drought aid did not cut into the money intended for school lunches and food pantries.
In response to the drought many Colorado ranchers reduced their herds, either to make water or what little hay they had stretch a little further.
"We've lost substantial (herds)," Colorado Agriculture Commissioner Don Ament said. "We think worst-case scenario that we may have lost a million, which is probably a third of Colorado's numbers."
About 7,000 cattle were shown or auctioned at this year's January stock show, close to last year's record-setting numbers, show spokesman Bill Saul said.
Even with wet years, it will take some time for ranchers to get their herds back to pre-drought numbers.
Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031, Ext. 210 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.