From drought to deluge | SummitDaily.com
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From drought to deluge

Reid Williams

SUMMIT COUNTY – Those who spent last summer meditating and praying for rain got more than they asked for this summer. Not only did Summit County see its typical afternoon rains in July and August, but June was a regular swamping, and recent weeks have brought an unusual phenomenon: rain in the morning.

The drought of 2002 saw precipitation levels barely worth recording and affected Summit County residents’ lifestyles. It meant no campfires and no fireworks on the Fourth of July. It meant worrying about wildfires encroaching on neighborhoods. Boaters and fishers had to walk a little farther to find the water’s edge. And some residents likely lost sleep over the water level in their wells.

What a difference a year makes.

Dam supervisor Dan Nyman keeps track of weather data for the Denver Water Board. According to statistics recorded over the past 90 years, the summer of 2003 has been an above average one for rain. June typically averages 1.14 inches. This June, Nyman recorded 2.31 inches. July was below average: Nyman’s Dillon station noted 1.14 inches, less than the 1.87-inch average. August typically sees 1.77 inches, but this year, with the month not even over, Nyman has recorded 2.17 inches of precipitation. In all, that’s .84 inches above average for the season.

“It’s a good thing,” said Nyman, adding that the heavy snowpack from the winter and the added rainfall helped the reservoir refill from its near-dead pool level ahead of the expected pace.

The regular showers haven’t been the perfect blessing, though. Campers checking into Forest Service areas last summer found they couldn’t build marshmallow-roasting fires, and water supplies were on the dwindle.

Now there’s too much water. Paul Semmer of the Forest Service’s Dillon Ranger District Office said the change in weather from last summer to this hasn’t affected the number of visitors to the area, but it has affected what they do when they get there.

“Usually, they’ve already made their reservations and plans, so the rain doesn’t keep them from coming,” Semmer said. “But we have heard of plenty of people packing up from the campgrounds and checking into motels to stay dry.”

Wet conditions haven’t been the boon to Summit County firefighters one might think, either. Despite the rain, a county and Forest Service fire ban has been in effect for most of the summer – as some unsuspecting campers have found out when approached by sheriff’s office deputies. And although Summit County has been moist, other areas of the West continue to suffer through wildfires. The Red, White and Blue Fire Protection District, for example, currently has a crew assigned in Wyoming, and crews have been traveling all summer to hotspots in Montana, Arizona, Idaho and Colorado’s Western Slope.

Red, White and Blue public information officer Mike Roll said the rain has been good for getting moisture back into the live fuels in Summit County’s forest, but it isn’t completely fixing the situation. Roll said years of dry conditions have taken their toll on the forests.

Rainstorms also present additional fire danger in the form of lightning. Roll said the Breckenridge area has been lucky in that lightning hasn’t caused any serious problems, but that’s because the rain that comes with the bolts is actually reaching the ground.

“Because of higher air temperatures like we saw last summer, a lot of the moisture evaporates before it hits the ground,” Roll said. “This summer, a lot of lightning strikes are hitting areas that are already wet. That’s a little better.”

It would have to rain a heck of a lot more to significantly affect businesses like rafting, said Highside Adventure Tours owner Johnny Cantamessa. The rain has been good for “resolving the so-called drought situation,” he said, but the above-average precipitation isn’t raising the rivers. Cantamessa said he operated trips through mid-September last year and plans to do the same this year. But “it doesn’t hurt,” Cantamessa said.

So what does the rain portend for snow this winter? As Nyman said, there are no guarantees and “your guess is as good as mine.”

Reid Williams can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 237, or rwilliams@summitdaily.com.


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