Monsoon season in Summit County: Late-summer rainfall keeps the High Country green and growing
Ryan Summerlin August 29, 2013
A healthy summer monsoon season has kept mountainsides moist and green and marinas operating on comfortable lake levels. But Summit County is still facing a long-term drought and is nearing its “second” wildfire season.
Coming into summer, almost all of Colorado was plagued with severe to extreme drought conditions.
Southeast Colorado was and continues to be the hardest hit. Some areas remain in exceptional drought conditions (the highest level of drought measurement), said Mike Baker, a forecast meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Boulder.
But all of Colorado has seen improvements over the summer, particularly in the past six weeks, he said.
The summer monsoon season accounts for much of Colorado’s precipitation during the year. The phenomenon is caused by southerly winds that bring moisture up from the Pacific Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, Baker said. It usually tapers off in mid-August. However, Baker said it’s lasting longer than usual this year. Summit County residents should expect some more rain and thunder this week, then conditions are likely to start drying out, he said.
Colorado’s mountainous areas, including Summit County, have seen slightly above average precipitation levels throughout July and August. So far in August, Breckenridge has received 2.44 inches of rainfall. The historic average for the month is 2.37 inches. Last year, Breck only saw 1.88 inches of rainfall for the month.
The slightly-above-average precipitation levels in July and August is holding Summit County’s drought meter near moderate conditions.
Staving off wildfires
Summer moisture is helping the Summit County ward off any major wildfires for the time being, said Lake Dillon Fire–Rescue public affairs coordinator Steve Lipsher.
The fire danger risk is currently low. Typically at this time of year the fire danger is reliably high, he said.
The healthy moisture levels found in vegetation — coupled with good weather conditions — helped local firefighters contain the wildfire near Heeney on Monday, Lipsher said. But Lipsher warned the ideal fire conditions aren’t likely to last long.
“As we drift into fall, the weather tends to dry out, humidity drops and we have frost that tends to kill vegetation and dry it out,” he said. “And we end up with conditions that are crackling with dryness.”
Baker keeps close tabs on the weather in late August and September as a meteorologist and climate watcher. This is the period he refers to as the second fire season.
“When the monsoon ends, we have a second period of fire danger that may not be as hot as in June, but it is dry,” Baker said.
The meteorologist said climate change is causing this dry season to last longer.
“We aren’t seeing snow as early as we used too,” he said. “We are seeing an extended season of summer weather. Some years it stays dry even into October.”
Reservoir levels hold steady
Steady precipitation levels have been holding the water levels at the reservoir at near-average.
The Dillon Reservoir is currently 94 percent full, Denver Water public information officer Travis Thompson said. At this time last year it was only 83 percent full.
While the Dillon Reservoir is in better shape than it was last year, it is about 4 percent lower than where it typically would be this time of year, Thompson said.
The unexpectedly wet spring, coupled with reports of reduced water use by customers, led Denver Water officials to reduce their drought restrictions to Stage 1 on June 26.
“While our water supply situation improved enough for us to move to Stage 1, not all of our reservoirs filled after this year’s runoff season, so we’re still vulnerable if there is a low snowpack in 2014,” Thompson said. “The additional water savings that we expect to receive under Stage 1 drought restrictions will help us maintain our reserves in case next year is dry.”
Denver Water officials expect the Stage 1 drought restrictions to continue through the rest of the year and into next.
Hazy winter outlook
Although Colorado residents have fared well with healthy summer precipitation levels, that doesn’t necessarily mean the wet weather conditions will continue into the winter, Baker said.
Meteorologists continually track a variety of factors that could impact winter weather conditions, including ocean temperatures and jet stream patterns, he said.
Right now, Colorado is in a neutral weather period, Baker said. Without good indicators such as El Nino or La Nina, it is difficult to determine what winter weather will bring, he said.
The latest predictions coming from national climate watchers are for “equal chances of precipitation.” In other words, Baker said, “It can go in any direction.”