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Colorado drought conference to focus on innovation

Climate change effects on drought also on the agenda

Although summer monsoon rains brought slight relief to parts of the mountains, all of Colorado is still at some level of drought.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — While the 2011 drought has eased slightly in parts of Colorado, the potential for a second dry year has the state’s resource managers thinking ahead. Government leaders and professionals working in regions and economies impacted by drought will gather Sept. 19 and 20 at the History Colorado Center in Denver to share new  approaches to drought preparedness. The conference will also present information on what drought may look like under future climate change conditions.

Drought is a historic fact of life in Colorado. State water planners say that, simply put, there’s about a one-in-three chance that any part of the state can experience drought conditions in any given year  — and climate change is expected to increase the frequency and severity of drought events, according to a drought mitigation and response plan completed in 2010.

The plan spells out climate change impacts in biting detail:

•    “Warmer temperatures will likely result in precipitation occurring as rain rather than snow, an earlier spring melt, more intense precipitation events, and increased evapotranspiration (CWCB 2008, CWCB 2010, Knowles et al 2006, Mote 2006, Saunders 2005, Udall 2007). . Consequently, runoff will start earlier and end earlier. Reservoirs will fill earlier, and what cannot be stored in the spring and early summer will be spilled when agricultural demands are not as great as they are later in the summer.

Decreased runoff in the summer will result in additional reservoir drawdown and many studies agree that higher temperatures and lower precipitation during summer months will further increase agricultural demands, thus causing even more stress on reservoir storage (CWCB 2008, CWCB 2010).”

There’s no guarantee that the coming winter will bring above-average or even average precipitation to make up for this year’s deficit, so identifying ways to mitigate impacts of potential sustained dry spells is crucial to Colorado’s future.

The conference agenda includes panels and speakers addressing:

  • Advances in drought monitoring, mitigation and impact assessment
  • Drought preparedness innovations in agriculture, business and energy sectors
  • The response and impacts from the 2011 drought – Colorado and Texas
  • Managing drought-related risk
  • Opportunities for interagency/intergovernmental collaboration and public/private
    partnerships on drought response and mitigation efforts
  • What the latest science says about drought and climate change
  • Vulnerability and economic impact of drought to tourism and recreation, as well as urban and natural environments.

According to the latest update from the National Integrated Drought Information System all of Colorado remains at some level of drought, ranging from “exceptional” in the southeasetern corner of the state to “severe” across a large part of the Front Range, through the middle of the state from east to west and across much of the Western Slope.

Only the north-central and southwestern mountain areas saw any significant benefit from the summer monsoon; as a result, the drought classification was lowered to severe in those regions.

The NIDIS monitor reports that no gauges in the Upper Colorado River Basin are recording above normal flows, while about 35 percent of the gages in the basin are recording much below normal or low (i.e. lowest on record) streamflows.

Much below normal flows are concentrated in the Colorado River headwaters region and upper Gunnison River. Near normal flows are concentrated around the Upper Green River, San Juan River and Colorado River just above Lake Powell. The remainder of the basin is mostly in the below normal flows range.

All of the major reservoirs are below their August storage averages, with Blue Mesa at 59 percent of average, Lake Granby at 79 percent of average, and Lake Powell currently at 70 percent of average.

Colorado’s drought response plan includes an interesting section on the history drought in the state.

The Dust Bowl drought came in three waves: 1934, 1936 and 1939-1940. The last of those droughts saw excessive heat even into the high country, with many July all-time high temperature records in Frisco set in the summer of 1939.

The 1950s drought hit the Great Plains and the Southwest especially hard, with a string of five dry years. Part of that time, drought stretched nearly from coast to coast. By the time the dry spell ended in 1957, many counties in the hardest-hit areas had been declared federal disaster zones.

The next major drought came in 1976-1977, when two-thirds of the state’s streams set all-time record low streamflows that held until 2002. The 1970s drought also gave ski areas the impetus to start thinking about making their own snow, a move that was reinforced a few years later during the short but intense drought that started in the fall of 1980 and continued to the spring of 1981. The early 1980s drought also triggered formulation of the state’s first formal drought response plan.

The state’s worst drought on record was in 2002, when the  Rio Grande nearly ceased flowing. Based on tree-ring studies, the 2002 event may have been the worst-ever dry spell in Colorado. If global warming causes recurrences of 2002 conditions, it could stretch the state’s water resources close to the breaking point — hence the need for an up-to-date response plan.

The draft plan goes on to rank counties based on their susceptibility to drought in different sectors, including agriculture, recreation and energy, as well as important aquatic habitat.

Registration for the event closes at 5 p.m. on September 14. Cost for the event is $175 per participant before September 1st and $195 thereafter. Registration includes a complimentary pass to the History Colorado Center, located at 1200 Broadway in Denver. For further information, please contact Taryn Hutchins-Cabibi at 303-866-3441 or taryn.hutchins-cabibi@state.co.us.

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