Summit County is now part of the 60 percent of Colorado experiencing a ‘severe drought’ |

Summit County is now part of the 60 percent of Colorado experiencing a ‘severe drought’

As water levels fall, islands get bigger near the Frisco Bay Marina in Lake Dillon on Friday, July 27. Summit County is now experiencing a severe drought.
Hugh Carey /

Things were good at the Frisco Bay Marina back when it opened for the season at the beginning of June. Lake Dillon, a reservoir controlled by Denver Water, was already full and the boating season was promising to be long and enjoyable.

“On Memorial Day, there’s usually still ice on the water and it’s still snowing, which aren’t the best conditions to put a boat out,” said Tom Hogeman, general manager of the marina. “This year we had a full lake and it was absolutely gorgeous. It was our busiest Memorial Day ever.”

Then the last of the snow melted off. The reservoir, which is one of Denver’s primary sources of drinking water, started drawing down. By mid-July, the level had dropped six feet in six weeks. By July 13, Hogeman was forced to tell slip holders the marina had to pull the boat ramp due to low water, and a few weeks later slip holders were offered refunds if they wished to end the season early in August. By comparison, Hogeman said that he was able to boat all the way into December last year.

Frisco’s marina is one of many aquatic businesses drying out early in the season due to persistent drought. An early spring started the mountain thaw and Summit’s relatively healthy snowpack was gone weeks earlier than normal. Despite promises of a wet monsoon season, Colorado’s arid reality has spread into Summit, which is now part of the 60 percent of the state experiencing “severe drought.”

Nathan Elder, manager of raw water supply for Denver Water, said low water levels at the South Platte reservoir in Littleton created a need for a big draw from Dillon. Even though human consumption is Denver Water’s primary use, Elder said they do keep the marinas in mind.

“We are very concerned with how that affects the recreation industry and keeping marinas in the reservoir,” Elder said. “We plan to keep marinas operating from June to Labor Day, but this has been an exceptional year. The water levels won’t go back to normal this year, and what happens next year depends on the snowpack we get this winter.”

The U.S. Drought Monitor, which tracks drought across the country and assigns drought severity based on conditions, assigns dryness levels from D0 to D4. D0 is considered “abnormally dry” but not severe enough to be considered a drought, while D4 is considered an “exceptional drought” that means there is a serious water emergency that causes “exceptional and widespread” crop and pasture losses.

Summit County’s “severe drought” is at level D2. At that stage, crop and pasture losses are likely, water shortages are common and water restrictions are imposed.

Victor Lee is a hydrologist and civil engineer for the Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the Green Mountain Reservoir in Heeney. Lee said that the monsoon is kicking in late due to less-than-ideal weather patterns.

“One of the reasons the monsoon has been slow to start is the high pressure system that normally forms over the southwest needs to be closer to Texas than the four corners region,” Lee said. “The high pressure system we’ve been experiencing is more to the west, and that’s bringing in warmer air but not more of the moist air from the Gulf of Mexico.”

Combined with an early spring, that makes for a long period without significant precipitation. Lee said that there is no threat to water supplies for human consumption, yet. A few years of healthy precipitation has meant that reservoirs across the state have managed to keep healthy levels in reserve and have been steadily releasing water to keep rivers and streams flowing.

“Without the reservoirs in the system, the stream flows we would be seeing throughout the upper Colorado would be much more dire,” Lee said.

If this drought persists into yet another year, the reasons for worry will multiply and tough decisions will be made.

“These are critical times in Colorado and the southwest,” Lee said. “If the drought goes into another year, there won’t be the same amount of carry-over storage, and it will become a much more complicated issue.”

For the here and now, though, there’s not much to rely on aside from the luck of rain.

“Everybody needs to get their rain dance shoes and get tapping,” Lee said.

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