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Feel of Drought: So this is Drought

“We should never be living in the illusion of plentiful water.  Because of this, during a D2 drought, and especially in the third consecutive summer of drought in southeast Colorado, I would recommend that residents voluntarily restrict how much water they use this summer,” said Becky Smith, Colorado Climate Center’s Drought Specialist.

As Colorado faces a D3 (severe) and D4 (extreme) drought conditions, in many areas, the response to drought is mixed.

However, with future prospects of prolonged drought affecting the majority of this country, demand on water will only continue to increase, or simply put, there will be less water to sustain a growing population.

Most Coloradoans think of drought as a yearly event where less snowfall means less water and there’s unbearable heat killing all the crops. However, the consequences Pueblo County and other parts of southern Colorado are likely to encounter are extremely high risk of wildfires potentially devastating to forests and communities, failed crops, diminished yields, soil and irri-gations issues, but also consumption restrictions like those already being faced by residents of Colorado Springs and Denver on nonessential water use.

Everyone understands natural drought mechanics on a basic level. Less snow and rain means less water. But there is something called consumptive use, or the water you use and the water used for industrial and agricultural means. What’s happening is Colorado is in a natural severe drought that is being worsened by the demands of human consumptive use. The system, the lakes, reservoirs, the underground aquifers, and ground water doesn’t have time to replenish naturally because of continued drought and continued use. 

Also, average water storage at reservoirs across the Colorado is down 34 percent from this time last year, according to the Colorado Board of Natural Resources, and filled to only 39 percent of capacity. This year is the third consecutive year of severe drought conditions. 

Factors contributing to the Colorado’s drought are a historically dry season, exacerbated by Colorado’s perception that water is abundantly plentiful but in reality is being drawn at a rate faster than it can be naturally replenished. All this done in a semi-arid state trending towards an even more arid climate.

To understand drought mechanics, you have to first look at the intensity the current drought in the West. 

Currently, the majority of the country is in a severe drought with conditions ranging from moderate to exceptional across two-thirds of the lower 48 states. Colorado is one of six states –  along with Wyoming, Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, and Iowa – facing an exceptionally dry period unlike any other period since 1895. 

Aiguo Dai, associate professor of climate science at University at Albany, suggests “we are facing the possibility of widespread drought in the coming decades, but this has yet to be ful-ly recognized by both the public and the climate change research community.” 

Models from Dai’s study indicate that most of the United States, especially the West, will be significantly drier by the 2030s. Estimates show some areas reaching a level of drought sever-ity rarely, if ever, observed in modern times. 

Still, gaining an understanding of what Coloradoans can assume about the state of their climate, along with what influences are applying stress on it only paints part of the picture of Colorado’s current climatological situation. Climate scientists agree that Colorado’s climate is not going to change overnight into a radically dry climate with no wet seasons. Colorado will still see fluctuations in wet and dry seasons as the history of Colorado weather shows but with a long-term move to being an overall drier climate due to climate change.

Information for US Drought Monitor - David Miskus
Information for US Drought Monitor – David Miskus

 The analysis conducted by NWS indicates Southern Colorado has seen some level of beneficial moisture in the past few months, however it also reports “a continued lack of moisture … along with increasing temperatures and the start of the convective [fire risk] season … will likely keep high fire danger across the area and could lead to more local governments instituting fire restrictions over the next several months.”

NWS’s data also indicates the soil across Southern Colorado is much drier than normal and the southeast plains region, dense in agriculture-centered communities, faces the greatest deficits of moisture in the state. Those deficits in soil moisture only return to normal levels after sustained wet seasons.

To translate: Colorado is dehydrated and the water we do have is going to satisfy a thirst that is unquenchable because of the heat and drought conditions. While climate change does im-pact the drought, according to Becky Smith, consumption practices are the most immediate threat to continued drought. 

Tracing transmountain municipal water supply (mountain snowpack) shows several locations reporting an overall decrease in average water content over the last 50 years. With the most dramatic decrease seen in the Ivanhoe Snotel (SNOwpack TELemetry) where the average water content in April fell from 18.2 feet between 1961-1990 to 11 feet during the years of 1981-2010. Additionally, in the mid-2000s snow course reports started being conducted around areas of the Columbine Ditch, located on Fremont Pass 13 miles north of Leadville, as well as Ewing Placer and Wurtz ditches; all of which either collect and divert or store transmountain water eventually seen flowing through the Arkansas River. The Ewing Ditch is one of the oldest diversions in Colorado and was constructed in 1880. 

So where does the latest analysis leave the region as the summer heat approaches? 

NWS forecasts, “May and June indicate better chances for above normal temperatures along with a slight tilt to below normal precipitation … Especially across southwest Colorado.”

Even the Pueblo Board of Water Works in its most recent state-of-the-drought report to customers acknowledges, “This ongoing drought is a natural disaster beyond human control.”

But a paragraph later, the same report states the Pueblo Board of Water Works does “not anticipate watering restrictions or curtailment of extraterritorial water leases this coming summer [2013].” 

In 2002, Pueblo felt the impact of the severe drought conditions when the board placed restrictions on outdoor watering and some water leaseholders. 

Having learned from the 2002 experience, the board has worked proactively to maximize storage and explains that it currently has more water stored in reservoirs it draws from than it did entering the irrigation season in 2002. 

Still Smith urges all Coloradans to bear in mind that the NWS is a government entity and most water providers are private companies. Even if the area is considered to be in an extreme drought, water providers will not immediately put water restrictions into place.

“NWS is going to tell you what they observe, based on objectively analyzing data.  Water providers are a business, selling customers a product.  They may take some more time before they advise the customers not to ‘buy’ as much of their product,” said Smith.  

She adds that the public should keep in mind the lack of restrictions doesn’t mean the area isn’t suffering from an “impending water shortage.”

As Colorado enters to what looks like another drought year, the State may be faced to change its long-standing policy where it can stave off drought through water storage. In the next decade, for the first time since the Arkansas Frying-Pan system was created, southeast Colorado may again realize what water shortage looks like and the only way to fight drought is at the source — the modern source — the tap.

by Matthew Ramirez & Rob Donovan

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