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High Country could face another dry summer

Runoff will be affected by soils parched from 2020 drought

Scott N. Miller
Vail Daily
Summit County’s mountain landscape is covered in a fresh coating of springtime snow. Despite a wet April, the region is still well behind median snowpack for this winter.
Photo by Joel Wexler

EAGLE — For many climate experts, the current drought in Western Colorado is the worst they’ve seen in their lifetimes, and the outlook isn’t great for the coming summer.

Joel Lisonbee — who works for the National Integrated Drought Information System, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — said drought conditions have been improving in Colorado but primarily on the eastern side of the Continental Divide. He noted that current 90-day outlooks aren’t good for temperature, precipitation and drought tendency.

That’s going to affect forest health, stream health and water supplies.



Eagle River Watershed Council Director Holly Loff said the lower runoff expected this spring may not give local streams enough water to self-cleanse as they do during more normal years.

Runoff translates to water that can clean out streambeds, including the small spaces between rocks. That’s where insects reproduce. Fewer insects means less food for fish.



Combine that with expected warmer summer temperatures, and local fish populations will struggle.

Even if local snowpack was normal, soils throughout the region are parched from a dry summer and fall in 2020. Snowmelt will soak into the soil before much of that water reaches local streams.

Helicopters fill up fire retardant slurry to fight the Grizzly Creek Fire on Sunday, Aug. 16, 2020, in Glenwood Canyon near Glenwood Springs.
Chris Dillmann/cdillmann@vaildaily.com

Fire season could be rugged

Drier-than-normal conditions can also contribute to active fire seasons. Fire officials across the region are gearing up.

Eagle Holy Cross Ranger District District Ranger Leanne Veldhuis said her office has hired a fire prevention officer for this year and has added two positions to its Front Country Ranger program.

Education is going to be a big part of those employees’ jobs.

Veldhuis said the fire prevention officer will focus on community outreach and patrols.

Front Country Rangers, funded in part by local governments, will also work to help forest users understand the rules about fire safety. U.S. Forest Service employees in 2020 put out a number of unattended campfires, some of which were wind-whipped into small wildfires.

“We can’t be everywhere at all times,” Veldhuis said, adding that she hopes forest users come to understand the role they play preventing wildfires.

While fire is part of a forest ecosystem, Veldhuis noted that the equation changes when wildfires start due to out-of-control campfires or other causes.

Those fires “continue to change the landscape,” Veldhuis said.

In preparation for this fire season, Veldhuis said the Forest Service is adding resources to be available in case of wildfire.

In Vail, the Vail Fire Department’s seasonal wildfire team will show up May 3. That’s a couple of weeks earlier than normal.

Paul Cada, the department’s wildland fire specialist, said public education is a big part of the department’s work. In fact, the department recently announced a program asking residents to complete tasks related to preparing for a wildfire. Those tasks range from signing up for community alerts to improving defensible space around homes.

“Preparedness is our big push in May,” Cada said. “It’s really the time for folks to (act).”

At the Avon-based Eagle River Fire Protection District, community risk manager and public information officer Tracy LeClair said local agencies have been conducting prescribed burns and other mitigation through the late winter and early spring.

A model from the National Integrated Drought Information System, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, shows that current 90-day outlooks in Colorado, particularly on the Western Slope, aren’t good for temperature, precipitation and drought tendency.

It’s a joint effort

“We’ve taken a much bigger role in trying to take on mitigation projects,” LeClair said. Reducing fuel loads won’t stop a wildland fire, but LeClair added that mitigation can help ease the spread of those fires.

It’s a team effort to work on fire prevention and firefighting, LeClair said.

“Cooperation is the name of the game,” she said. “We can’t do it alone.”

A warm, dry summer with below-average streamflows is also concerning news for local water providers.

Eagle River Water & Sanitation District Communications and Public Affairs Manager Diane Johnson was able to quickly rattle off several drought years in the past 20 or so.

“Droughts are getting more frequent and more severe,” Johnson said. The goal at the district is to “permanently reduce” the amount of water customers use.

Most of that reduction has to come from outdoor watering. Much of the district’s water supply comes from local streamflows. More than 90% of indoor water use is returned to local streams after treatment. Only about 25% of outdoor water use ends up back in streams.

Johnson urged district customers to work with their landscapers to cut back on outdoor watering.

“Far too many people are over-using water,” Johnson said, adding that local landscapers can help calculate how much water a yard needs, or come up with plans for attractive but water efficient landscaping.

All this and more is part of what Veldhuis called “an all-out effort to do the right thing.”


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