Summit County and Colorado approaching record drought conditions

Lower than average water levels at Lake Dillon Friday, July 6, near Frisco.
Hugh Carey /

Pray for rain. That’s what Summit Fire & EMS Chief Jeff Berino suggested people do a few weeks ago when the Buffalo Mountain Fire set off. At this point, anything might be worth trying. Drought conditions in Colorado are looking to be the worst since 2002, and Summit County’s relatively healthy snowpack did not last long. The High Country is part of the drought zone with “abnormally dry” conditions.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 80 percent of the state is experiencing some form of drought. The water shortage affects nearly 2.4 million Colorado residents, or 47 percent of the population.

Lake Powell, the largest reservoir for Colorado and other Upper Basin states, is 26 feet below its level compared to the same time last year. Due to terrible snowpack, more water is going out of the reservoir at this point of the year than flowing in for the first time since 2013.

A few more years like this and a nightmare scenario might come about: the Colorado River Compact Call. Under the 1922 agreement, Upper Basin states like Colorado and Utah are required to pump a certain amount of water to the Lower Basin states, such as Arizona and California. If enough water isn’t provided, the Lower Basin states will put a “call” on water claims in the Upper Basin, triggering water cuts to most big users — especially in agriculture.

Summit County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier, who sits on several regional water boards, said that local and regional authorities have been working for years to avoid a compact call. However, she said she hasn’t seen conditions like these since 2002, and the possibility of a call grows larger with each passing dry year. If this really is the “new normal,” she said, Summit County might start looking like it did back in ’02, when the county had the worst drought in its history.

“Back then, people’s wells were going dry everywhere,” said Stiegelmeier. “Lake Dillon got so low you could see the old Highway 6 go in from the Snake River side and come out at Breckenridge. That stretch of road hadn’t been seen since the lake filled.”

Commissioner Dan Gibbs, a certified wildland firefighter who presides over the Summit County Wildfire Council, said the current wildfire crisis is a direct result of climate change.

“Wildfire season is starting earlier and ending later as a result of climate change and drought across the West,” he said. “We have seen wildfires in Colorado as early as January as temperatures and dry conditions increase the likelihood of wildland fires.”

Jim Pokrandt, community affairs director for the Colorado River Water Conservation District, said there is some hope that, at least this year, things can turn around on the water front.

“There are two main precipitation sources in Colorado — snowpack and monsoon season,” Pokrandt said. “We had a miserable snowpack this year, so a lot of how this summer goes rides on how heavy our monsoon season will be.”

That’s where we might see silver linings under lots of clouds on the horizon. The federal Climate Prediction Center is calling for above average precipitation from July through September. However, that heavy rain doesn’t seem to have kicked in yet, and the coming weeks and months will be critical to help alleviate a slow-motion crisis.

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