A rarity: Summit County comes out of drought before end of summer, a good omen for 2023, scientists say

The sun sets over Dillon Resevoir on Saturday, June 25, 2022. The southern half of Summit County is now officially out of a drought according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Peter Goble, a climatologist and water availability specialist at Colorado State University, said the Dillon Resevoir is 89% full, a good place for the resevoir to be at this point in the summer, he said.
Eiliana Wright/Summit Daily News

The southern half of Summit County has been lifted from drought status as of the morning of Sept. 6., according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

The line begins just south of Ute Peak, stretches along Interstate 70 and ends around Chalk Mountain, a Lake County landmark slightly south of the Summit County border.

A quick glance at the map shows the boundary between the southern area of the county that is out of drought and the northern half of the county is only “abnormally dry” a slightly curved, vertical line that encapsulates every town south of Silverthorne.

Since 2000, the state of Colorado has suffered from dry conditions. Only a handful of times within those years has Summit County been lifted from a drought, and very rarely in the fall, said Peter Goble, a climatologist and water availability specialist at Colorado State University. 

Summit County was last relieved from a drought in spring 2019, ending in the spring of 2020. The last time a drought was lifted in the fall was in 2013. 

This summer’s monsoonal rains are what changed the tide. 

Precipitation levels at Hoosier Pass, south of Breckenridge received the “second wettest June through August” on record, Goble reported. 

The difference was the prolonged and spread out nature of this summer’s monsoonal rains, said Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center wildland fire meteorologist Valerie Meyers. The consistency of the rains gave the county a chance to catch up on moisture from last summer, she added. 

 “It’s definitely a change from what we’ve seen in some of the last few years,” Goble said. 

While the northern half of Summit County hasn’t received as much precipitation, Goble said that isn’t a reason to not lift the drought status. 

“Drought is more based on deviations from normal, and we’ve seen kind of the same percent of normal in the northern and southern half over the last 10, 11 months or so,” Goble said. 

Meyers said to think of the county like a mosaic, where different patches of dry and moist land intertwine. 

Goble predicted that the drought may last at least a month, though the onset of warm and dry conditions could bring the drought back within a matter of weeks or months. 

The past week has been a warm, dry one for Summit County, bringing fire danger levels up to high. 

To quell worries, Meyers said as soon as this weekend, the county may start to experience some more cloud cover, with chances of showers and thunderstorms due to a storm off of the California Baja Peninsula. 

Goble warned, however, that this winter’s snowpack will be just as important as this summer’s rainfall.

“If we end up with a bad snow year, Summit County will be right back in drought,” Goble said. “What happens in the coming months is really important, regardless of this recent U.S. Drought Monitor designation.” 

If these conditions last with even an average snow year, the ground may stay soaked through the winter, Goble said.

According to past reporting, La Niña — a weather pattern that brings heavy snowfall to Western states — is expected to stick around this winter.

This would prevent the melted snowpack from being sucked up by dry soil in the spring, and could lead to healthy and robust lakes, streams and reservoirs. 

“The fact that Summit County has been put out of a drought completely by the U.S. Drought Monitor, you can definitely take to mean that not only has precipitation been better recently, but we’ve seen significant progress in terms of local stream flows and soil moisture,” Goble said. 

Though this drought lift may be brief, Meyers said this chunk of time without a drought has great benefits for the county.

“Yes, we get kind of dry during the winter months this past winter, and last fall,” Meyers said. “But the pattern has definitely changed and is changing as we go into the fall and winter months this year to 2023.”

At the end of the day, the drought is a good omen for the coming months and next year’s fire season. 

“Overall, your county is sitting pretty good right now,” Meyers said.

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