It's been an ongoing theme in Summit County and across Colorado for nearly a year now: periods of daily precipitation follow extended dry spells, but can't deliver enough moisture to alleviate extreme drought conditions.
Recent snowfall has helped, experts say, but with Colorado snowpack still far behind average and what is shaping up to be the second consecutive dry winter failing to produce the needed moisture, western Colorado may be on its way to another arid summer and dangerous fire season.
Snowpack in the Blue River Basin, where shades of brown can still be seen at the top of peaks 9 and 10, is only at 59 percent of last year's total at this point in the year, and 42 percent of the median snowpack for the area.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Drought Monitor continues to place Summit County, and much of northwestern Colorado, in an extreme drought.
After a dismal January for snowfall delivered only 6 total inches in Breckenridge, compared to an average 23 inches, it is becoming more likely that the winter season many hoped would pull Colorado out of one of the worst droughts in a decade will fail to do so. Without a significant increase in snowfall over the next several months, parts of the state may be on track to see another difficult summer marked by a lack of water and high wildfire danger.
Consecutive months of below-average snowpack accumulation are statistically decreasing the possibility of reaching normal conditions by April, a Feb. 1 Colorado State Basin outlook report from the Natural Resources Conservation Service stated. Last year's below-average snowpack did not offer any buffer to our current situation. ... Water users in all basins should start planning for below-average surface water supplies this season. The potential for shortages this season is great.
Last summer's drought was offset by healthy reservoir levels, with storage facilities across the state nourished by above-average snowfall and high streamflows the year before.
But Dillon Reservoir is now only 66 percent full, far from its 90 percent normal for this time of year, according to data from Denver Water, the utility company that owns the lake. Denver Water's total storage system is at only 63 percent of total capacity, falling below levels recorded during the 2002 drought year, when the system dipped to 76 percent of capacity at the end of January.
Officials are now talking about mandatory water restrictions next summer.
It would mean that if we get to that point, we would have mandatory restrictions for customers, specific days where they can water, Denver Water spokesman Travis Thompson said, noting that the usual wet spring snowfall could still head off the need for such restrictions. We're still hoping for that.
Drought conditions area also setting Summit County up for another high-risk wildfire season, with an increasingly dry and flammable forest dominated by beetle-killed timber.
What we're really looking at is the fuels on the forest floor, said Dan Schroder, field agent for local Colorado State University extension office. These fuels are incredibly dry. We also have a standing timber of primarily dead lodgepole pine ... so our trees and woods are less able to resist fire.
Local officials continue to urge the public to be water conscious and to take steps, including implementing defensible space, to protect homes and properties from wildfire.