Colorado: Some headwaters areas seeing ‘extreme’ drought

All of Summit and Eagle counties in the red zone this month

All of Colorado is currently experiencing some level of drought, with the driest conditions on the southeastern plains, while even some high-mountain headwaters areas are currently designated as being in extreme drought.
Automated streamflow and snowpack gages around Colorado help water managers calculate seasonal outlooks.

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO —Snowpack levels and moisture content are so low that all of Summit County — a key headwaters source region for the Colorado River — has been colored red on the U.S. drought monitor map, signifying “extreme” drought conditions.

Summit County residents and visitors are in for an unpleasant surprise when the snow melts in a couple of months. Dillon Reservoir, the centerpiece of the area’s summer recreation activities, is going to be lower than at anytime during the past 10 years. Denver Water has continued to shunt water through the Roberts Tunnel during the early winter and according to the latest projections, the reservoir will probably drop another 10 feet by March.

The Blue River Basin’s SNOTEL sites are at just 50 percent of historic averages, below last year’s numbers and approaching the record-low levels of 1981, according to Blue River Basin water commissioner Troy Wineland.

“We’re going to see a reservoir that looks like a pond, dry brittle forests … the recreation economy will feel the impacts,” Wineland said. “I would hope that we’re going to see a lot more mandatory water restrictions. They  could’ve done a heck of a lot better job last summer,” he said.

The Colorado snowpack dwindled during an exceptionally dry January, with only 30 percent of average snowfall.

Statewide, water managers are not hopeful that the snowpack will bounce back. Currently, the statewide snowpack is about 60 percent of average, driest along the Continental Divide, with a bit more moisture in the northwestern part of the state.

“The chances of full recovery are not good … Where we stand now the statewide average is as bad as it’s ever been this time of year,” state climatologist Nolan Doesken said during a meeting of the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s water availability task force.

This winter’s dry conditions are essentially part of a persistent dry pattern that continues to affect a big chunk of the south-central U.S. Overall hemispheric circulation patterns play a big part in the extended drought, said NOAA research meteorologist Klaus Wolter.

Wolter’s seasonal outlook for later winter and early spring offered a bit of hope for some small-scale, short-term relief in the next week or so, but beyond that, the outlook remains for better than average chances of dry and warm conditions.

Wolter said the current combination of a cold phase of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and a warm phase in the North Atlantic have historically been linked with dry conditions in Colorado.

He said Colorado’s dry conditions are a manifestation of the most extreme expression of that contrast (between Pacific and Atlantic) in the last 100 years.

“It matched beautifully, from the forecasters point of view, with what happened, unfortunately, that meant drought,” Wolter said, adding that some long-range forecast models are hinting at an emerging El Niño by mid-2013.




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