Colorado approaching record drought conditions
July 8, 2018
Pray for rain. That’s what Summit Fire & EMS Chief Jeff Berino suggested people do a few weeks ago when the Buffalo Mountain Fire set off. At this point, anything might be worth trying. Drought conditions in Colorado are looking to be the worst since 2002, and Summit County’s relatively healthy snowpack did not last long. The High Country is part of the drought zone with “abnormally dry” conditions.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 80 percent of the state is experiencing some form of drought. The water shortage affects nearly 2.4 million Colorado residents, or 47 percent of the population.
Lake Powell, the largest reservoir for Colorado and other Upper Basin states, is 26 feet below its level compared to the same time last year. Due to terrible snowpack, more water is going out of the reservoir at this point of the year than flowing in for the first time since 2013.
A few more years like this and a nightmare scenario might come about: the Colorado River Compact Call. Under the 1922 agreement, Upper Basin states like Colorado and Utah are required to pump a certain amount of water to the Lower Basin states, such as Arizona and California. If enough water isn’t provided, the Lower Basin states will put a “call” on water claims in the Upper Basin, triggering water cuts to most big users — especially in agriculture.
Summit County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier, who sits on several regional water boards, said that local and regional authorities have been working for years to avoid a compact call. However, she said she hasn’t seen conditions like these since 2002, and the possibility of a call grows larger with each passing dry year. If this really is the “new normal,” she said, Summit County might start looking like it did back in ’02, when the county had the worst drought in its history.
“Back then, people’s wells were going dry everywhere,” said Stiegelmeier. “Lake Dillon got so low you could see the old Highway 6 go in from the Snake River side and come out at Breckenridge. That stretch of road hadn’t been seen since the lake filled.”
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“There are two main precipitation sources in Colorado — snowpack and monsoon season,” Pokrandt said. “We had a miserable snowpack this year, so a lot of how this summer goes rides on how heavy our monsoon season will be.”
That’s where we might see silver linings under lots of clouds on the horizon. The federal Climate Prediction Center is calling for above average precipitation from July through September. However, that heavy rain doesn’t seem to have kicked in yet, and the coming weeks and months will be critical to help alleviate a slow-motion crisis.