Diane Johnson & Hannah Holm: Drought deepens across Colorado
Ryan Summerlin June 7, 2012
Extreme drought conditions now exist in the Yampa, Colorado, and Gunnison River basins according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The latest map, released May 31, shows 100 percent of Colorado is experiencing some level of drought condition, with drought intensity in northwestern Colorado “extreme.” (map available at http://bit.ly/ncpF5j)The U.S. Drought Monitor classifies drought intensity on a scale of D0 to D4. Most of Garfield and Rio Blanco counties were recently elevated to D3, becoming the only region in Colorado currently categorized as extreme. The covered area comprises 9.89 percent of the state.Governor Hickenlooper expanded the activation of Colorado’s Drought Mitigation and Response Plan on May 21 to include the Yampa/White, Colorado, and Gunnison River basins. Phase 2 of the State plan was activated over a year ago due to deteriorating drought conditions in the Arkansas and Rio Grande River basins and it remains active for those portions of Colorado. Activation of the plan involves convening high level agency officials into a Drought Task Force charged with identifying drought impacts and “expeditious and effective” remedial actions.According to the latest drought update from Colorado’s Water Availability Task Force, April 2012 was the fourth warmest on record in Colorado. March 2012 was the third warmest for Colorado and tied 1966 for the driest on record. Records date back to 1895. The last two months temperatures have been five degrees above average for most of Colorado. This winter’s warmer and drier than normal weather resulted in record low snowpack, which has been melting earlier than normal, leaving streamflow forecasts well below average.Data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) showed the Colorado River basin had its lowest May 1 snowpack on record (45 year record) at 21 percent of average for that date; by June 5, provisional data showed it was down to 2 percent. The Gunnison River basin snowpack was just 18 percent of average for the date on May 1, with many monitoring sites already snow-free; by June 5, provisional data showed that it was down to 5 percent. With most of the snowpack already gone, streamflows are unlikely to improve. In May, the NRCS expected most of the state’s streams to produce only 20-40 percent of average volumes, with northern Colorado streamflow volumes expected to be 15-30 percent of average. So far, high reservoir levels from last year’s large runoff have enabled most jurisdictions in the state to avoid mandatory watering restrictions, even as they warily watch forecasts. One exception is in the Redlands area of Grand Junction, where Redlands Water and Power has responded to low river levels in the Gunnison by adopting a rotating ditch schedule, as well as closing off their fish ladder. Details are available under “shareholder info” at www.redlandswaterandpower.com.The Colorado Water 2012 blog, viewable via www.water2012.org, has a review of other actions taken around the state, which include:> The Eagle River Water and Sanitation District is continuing its normal year-round regulations, which include limiting outdoor water use to three days/week before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m. Details available at www.erwsd.org.> Back in April, Denver Water declared a State 1 drought and asked customers to voluntarily limit water use.> Aurora is continuing its permanent restrictions, which limit outdoor watering to three days a week, and is offering qualified customers a $1 rebate for every square foot of water-intensive turf they replace with less thirsty plants.> Aspen has enacted an ordinance enabling surcharges on overuse by their highest water users in the event of water shortages, and is seeking to curtail the City’s own use by 10 percent.If the drought continues to deepen, more watering restrictions are likely, and water planners will feel additional urgency in their efforts to address the long-term regional trend of increasing demands and decreasing supplies. To keep an eye on the drought and get tips on how to curb your own water use without killing all your plants, check out the CSU Extension drought page at www.ext.colostate.edu/drought.The Water Center at Colorado Mesa University is working with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about water issues in our region. To learn more about the basin roundtables and statewide water planning, go to www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenterDiane Johnson is communications & public affairs manager for the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District and member of the Colorado Basin Roundtable. Hannah Holm is coordinator of the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University.