Summit County is currently enveloped in extreme drought |

Summit County is currently enveloped in extreme drought

The Tenmile Range is seen from the Ophir Mountain Trail System as seen on Saturday, Sept. 12.
Photo by Antonio Olivero /

FRISCO — Summit County, along with most of western Colorado, has entered into an extreme drought

The U.S. Drought Monitor uses a scale of drought intensity that ranges from D0, abnormally dry, to D4, exceptional drought. The monitor places Summit County in the D3 zone, extreme drought. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the impact of a D3 drought means pasture conditions worsen, large fires develop, and rafting, fishing, hunting and skiing are reduced as fish kills occur and reservoirs are extremely low. 

As most of western Colorado is in an extreme drought, most of eastern Colorado is experiencing moderate to severe drought. While earlier in the summer southern Colorado was experiencing the driest conditions, the driest conditions now take up the western half of the state. The dryness extends into the Denver metro area and creeps to the east in the southernmost part of the state. 

This map shows drought conditions in Colorado, with much of western Colorado experiencing an extreme drought.
Map by the U.S. Drought Monitor

Treste Huse, a senior hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Boulder, explained that drought in Summit County started slowly this spring, then progressed to an extreme drought quickly. She explained that Summit County saw a dry fall and while winter saw a decent snowpack, the dry spring meant that the soil moisture was fairly dry going into the summer, which increased the wildfire danger. The U.S. Drought Monitor summary noted that topsoil moisture on Sept. 13 was rated very short to short in Colorado.

Huse said that Summit County entered abnormally dry conditions by the end of May. The northern tip of the county went into a moderate drought toward the end of July. In mid-August, the area north of Dillon entered a severe drought. By Aug. 18, the whole county was in a severe drought with extreme drought in the north end of the county and the county was fully enveloped in extreme drought on Aug. 25. 

“It went fast, we just never got any rain,” Huse said. “That happens a lot of times with drought. You start to see a lot of impacts at once because they’re like, ‘I can go another month if we get some rain’ or ‘I can go two more weeks,’ but then finally there’s just no rain.”

Map shows drought conditions in Summit County from August 2019 through mid September 2020.
Map by the U.S. Drought Monitor

In August, the Dillon weather station recorded 0.62 inches of precipitation, according to the National Weather Service almanac. The station records 1.93 inches in a normal year. So far in September there have been 0.41 inches of precipitation recorded at the station, while 1.02 inches is normal. However, September has seen 3 inches of snow so far, 2.5 inches above normal, which Huse said helped conditions.

To reduce the effects of the drought, Huse said it would be great if Summit County could get some rain or snow to reduce the wildfire risk. The National Weather Service forecast shows the next chance of precipitation is on Monday, Sept. 21, with a 30% chance of showers and thunderstorms after noon in Dillon. There are chances of rain on Tuesday and Wednesday as well.

Despite dry conditions, Huse noted that the reservoirs are still in good shape.

“What saved the reservoir storage was … the good snowpack of 2018-19,” Huse said.

Huse explained that the 2018-19 snowpack helped keep the reservoir full this year as this last winter, the snowpack barely reached average. Currently, Huse said that reservoir storage for the Colorado River Basin is 101% of average and at 86% capacity. As of Sept. 16, the Dillon reservoir is 95% full, according to Denver Water. Huse explained that parts of the Blue River are normal, such as the high reaches, but it is below normal in places where it runs through Dillon and Breckenridge. Other rivers like the Snake River and Tenmile Creek are below normal. Huse said that overall the biggest concern with the drought is simply about having enough water.

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