Drought Watch: The long road to normal for Summit County, Colorado & the West | SummitDaily.com

Drought Watch: The long road to normal for Summit County, Colorado & the West

Summit Daily/Mark Fox

Editor’s note: This article is the first in a multiple-part series addressing drought conditions and the impacts on Summit County, the High Country and the state. Each week throughout the summer local and regional experts will address drought-related issues.

On the second to last day of May, it snowed in Summit County. Not a drizzly cold-rain kind of snow, but big slushy flakes that soaked roads and stacked up to several inches at Arapahoe Basin.

It’s been an odd spring of befuddled forecasts and soggy results. Still, experts seem to agree, through the fog, the drought persists.

“We are still in a drought,” National Weather Service hydrologist Triste Huse said. “It’s just not back to normal yet.”

But after a spring in which Summit County received 170 percent of average precipitation in April, it’s a nuanced drought. Current conditions are complicated by increased soil moisture, filling reservoirs, changing stream flows, still-dry vegetation — which firefighters call fuel — and a long-range forecast that remains stubbornly neutral.

Based on a slew of factors, the U.S. Drought Monitor at the end of May placed most of north-central Colorado and Summit County in moderate drought, one they expect to continue or improve slightly by August 31, even as extremely dry conditions persist or worsen in southeastern parts of the state. Climatologists expect the coming summer to be warmer than normal, but still can’t project how much precipitation it will bring.

“If you look at what all the models are saying, the average trend for the next 12 months would put us on a continuation of neutral conditions,” National Weather Service climatologist Mike Baker said. “There’s not a lot to predict right now. We’re staying the course.”

For local firefighters, it all adds up to a season of fluctuating risk. Fire officials focus primarily on the moisture levels of grasses, shrubs, trees and other vegetation that would feed a wildfire and which are changing daily.

“Even though the drought has been reduced, it doesn’t really have an effect on the fuel moisture, because that’s a day-to-day analysis,” Red, White and Blue deputy chief Jay Nelson said. “We’re looking out the window right now with it spitting snow, but give it a really hot, dry week and in the forecast we’re showing more of that and we may have to start looking at restrictions.”

The drought began in 2012, following a historically dry winter. Reservoirs were depleted, fireworks and campfires banned across the state and large-scale wildfires scorched hundreds of thousands of acres of land. Early in the year, 2013 looked on track to be more of the same. January snowfall fell far short of average and by the end of March, Summit County was still in an extreme drought.

The pattern shifted in April, when late season storms brought 49 inches of snow to Breckenridge, compared with the average 27 inches for the month. May is on track to more than double the average monthly snow accumulation and local reservoirs, particularly Green Mountain, are filling up.

This year, fire bans, water restrictions and wildfires are possibilities, but not certainties, in Summit County.

In short, the summer season is shaping up to be one of confusing nuances and mixed messages.

During the coming months, the Summit Daily News will continue to run stories on the weather and the drought. But the newspaper will pair that coverage with weekly articles, written by local experts, addressing a host of issues related to our changing High Country environment.

The coming stories will include insight and advice on topics ranging from wildfire and emergency preparedness to recreation and the state of our forests. They will address the topics the experts — firefighters, U.S. Forest Service officials and local leaders — deem to be of key importance.

The series will appear weekly on Fridays, often with photos and graphs to help illustrate the issues, throughout most of the summer. The newspaper hopes the series will help shed light on the complex and evolving conditions in our local environment and prime the community on what to expect from and how to be ready for the upcoming season.

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