Colorado: Drought 101

Starting the conversation …


By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY —It’s often said that Colorado is always just one dry winter away from a drought, and this year may lend some truth to that maxim. Instead of wrestling with potential flood hazards, resource managers are dusting off their drought plans and trying to figure out how stretch water supplies through what could be a long, hot summer.

As of last week, federal officials designated 98 percent of Colorado into various categories of drought, but what does that mean, exactly?

Essentially, a drought occurs when there’s not enough water available to  satisfy an area’s usual water-consuming activities.

Here’s how the Colorado Water Conservation Board describes various types of drought:

  1. Meteorological drought is usually an expression of precipitation’s departure from normal over some period of time. Meteorological measurements are the first indicators of drought.
  2. Agricultural drought occurs when there is not enough soil moisture to meet the needs of a particular crop at a particular time. Agricultural drought happens after meteorological drought but before hydrological drought. Agriculture is usually the first economic sector to be affected by drought.
  3. Hydrological drought refers to deficiencies in surface and subsurface water supplies. It is measured as streamflow and as lake, reservoir and groundwater levels. There is a time lag between lack of rain and less water in streams, rivers, lakes and reservoirs, so hydrological measurements are not the earliest indicators of drought. When precipitation is reduced or deficient over an extended period of time, this shortage will be reflected in declining surface and subsurface water levels.
  4. Socioeconomic drought occurs when physical water shortage starts to affect people, individually and collectively. Or, in more abstract terms, most socioeconomic definitions of drought associate it with the supply and demand of an economic good.

From those definitions, it’s clear that much of Colorado is experiencing the beginnings of a meteorological drought, with below average snowfall since the start of the water year, Oct. 1, 2011.

Unless some of that deficit is erased in the next few weeks, or unless the summer delivers exceptionally heavy rains, it’s likely that parts of Colorado will see other types of drought during the next few months.

For example, it’s almost certain that high country streams will see below-average flows during the summer; even a strong monsoon generally doesn’t deliver enought moisture to boost stream flows for sustained periods, and as a result, water levels in reservoirs will also begin to drop.

What dies it all mean for the high country? According to Summit County’s multi-hazard mitigation plan, past drought impacts have included degradation of air quality due to dust, reduction of tourism and recreation activities, and damage to the ranching economy in the Lower Blue Basin. The economy of Summit County, which is based upon the ski industry and other outdoor recreation and tourism, is very vulnerable to drought conditions, according to the county’s plan.

Last week, I sent some drought-related questions to Summit County emergency management director Joel Cochran:

Following is the unedited exchange. Readers can decide if the they think the county is better prepared for a potential drought than in 2002:

Question: The following bullets points came from a draft multihazard mitigation plan in 2008. Have any of these been adopted or implemented?


  • Adopt water use ordinance to prioritize or control water use during emergency situations, such as firefighting or drought
  • Develop a drought contingency plan to anticipate needs and actions
  • Develop and adopt a tiered rate structure to encourage water savings measures by citizens
  • Develop education and incentives programs to encourage responsible water use
  • Incorporate consideration for drought in water delivery systems New or upgraded pipelines
  • Lining ditches

Answer: The County MHMP adopted 2008, included mitigation actions identified by the water utility and special district entities who participated in writing the plan.  The plan is required by FEMA to be updated every five years and we will be working in 2013 on the update.

 The County does not operate any water distribution systems and therefore we have not taken any action on items addressing water restrictions or conservation.  The Local water utilities and the Water Commissioner monitor and put into place restrictions.  They would be the best source of the information related to those actions.  The Water Commissioner would be best to speak to his enforcement of well water usage for irrigation and can be reached at:

Question: Can you give me a brief, specific update on how and what Summit County has done to prepare and mitigate impacts of a potential drought?

Answer: The Fire Districts do have understandings with the water utilities regarding hydrant water demands for firefighting.  The County has agreement with the Denver Water Board for use of water from the reservoir for firefighting.  Various open water sources throughout the County have been identified for firefighting. 

 We are aware of the drought predictions and forecasts which we receive from the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The CWCB website has good information regarding drought and conservation planning.  Website:
Question: Any upcoming meetings set to talk about potential drought conditions?

Answer: A couple of tangents off of the drought conversation, first would be fire ban and restriction on burn permits.  The Fire Districts last week suspended issuing burn permits and would be a good source to contact for more direct comment.  The Sheriff is prepared to request a fire ban from the Commissioners when there is consensus for the need.

Second, the County hosts annually in the spring a meeting with the road and bridge/public works departments, some water utilities, and national weather service to discuss preparedness for spring runoff however this year we will discuss any issues developing throughout the Spring.  We are meeting on Thursday, April 26, 2012 at 10am in the Mt. Royal Room in the County Commons.  You are welcome to attend.

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