DENVER - There could be some relief coming for the state's current drought. But "might" is faint hope for local water and fire officials.
At a Wednesday meeting in Denver, the Colorado Water Availability Task Force - a group made up of weather experts and regional land and water managers - discussed the condition of the state's water supply, fire danger and prospects for relief.
The first part of the presentation, about the state's snowpack, was filled with bad news.
Snowpack across the state, which fills rivers and reservoirs, is remarkably low, thanks to unusually warm and dry conditions in March. The entire state is dry, but the Colorado River Basin has its lowest snowpack recorded in the last 45 years.
A presentation by State Climatologist Nolan Doeskin showed that while Eagle County's average temperatures in March weren't as higher as those seen in Denver, they were still four to six degrees higher than normal. That was enough to start snowpack melting about a month before it usually peaks.
The warmer weather and nearly nonexistent March snowfall combined to put much of the Colorado River basin - which includes the Vail Valley - into a drought classified as somewhere between "moderate" and "severe" on state climate maps.
"The drought is growing and expanding, and getting more intense in northwest Colorado," Doeskin said.
The good news, Doeskin said, is that the two-year precipitation levels are about at their historic averages, thanks to last year's well-above-average snowfall. That has helped keep reservoir levels healthy.
Averages don't help forest
Two-year averages don't do much to help with wildfire danger.
Colorado State Forest Service Fire Division Supervisor Rich Homann said Colorado has already seen 447 wildfires this year, far above the historic average of 253. But the wildfires so far this year have burned fewer acres than average.
Homann said the current drought has had a seemingly contradictory pair of consequences so far. Because of the drought, there will be less grass and other "fine fuels" sprouting this spring. Those fuels can help spark a fire after they've dried out in the early summer.
That might seem like good news, but the drought has also dried out trees and other big fuels, which makes them more likely to burn.
The result, Gypsum Fire Chief Dave Vroman said, is a kind of wildfire crapshoot.
"The projections don't look good," Vroman said. "But we may have a normal (summer) monsoon season. If that's the case, we may get to November and say, 'That wasn't so bad.'"
And there may be some relief in the long-term weather patterns.
Klaus Wolter, of the Boulder-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the models so far show the prospect of a cooler, drier late spring and early summer. The current "La Nina" weather pattern - fueled by cooler-than-normal water in the Pacific Ocean near the equator - has seen alternating wet and dry months, Wolter said, meaning May could be dry.
A wetter summer?
But the models also show more moisture coming in July, August and September, especially if an "El Nino" pattern - warmer-than-normal water in the equatorial Pacific - develops. Wolter put the odds of that happening at perhaps 40 percent.
But, he added, the state still needs to get hit by the storms, instead of those weather systems missing the state.
Even if the long-term weather models come to pass, local water and fire officials have to plan for how much water and moisture is available now. The valley's water systems rely primarily on streamflows. That means this year's weak snowpack is going to test water providers' resources.
Diane Johnson of the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District said the district has done a lot of work to the equipment that draws water from the rivers since the drought of 2002. But even that equipment will be tested this year as streamflows slow going into the summer.
While a cooler, wetter summer might help take some pressure off local water systems, it won't put an appreciable amount of water back into the streams. That means there's a real chance that outdoor watering will be restricted.
Outdoor burning in the county has already been all but banned, although Eagle County Sheriff Joe Hoy this week partially lifted that ban for agricultural burning, thanks to a wet weekend.
And that's probably the way the rest of the season's going to go, Vroman said.
"We'll just have to take it day by day, and pray for moisture," he said.