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Eagle County unlikely to see much relief from hot, dry August

Streamflows in the Eagle River drainage are significantly below normal levels

All of Eagle County is now in the second-highest drought category of "extreme." Much of the Western Slope slid into that category over the course of just a few weeks.
How dry is it?
  • Gore Creek: 74% of normal streamflow for Aug. 26.
  • Eagle River near Minturn: 73% of normal.
  • Eagle River at Avon: 53% of normal.
  • Source: Eagle River Water & Sanitation District

August can often be hot and dry. The month just past was exceptionally so.

Streamflows are generally pretty low this time of year. They’re even lower now, thanks to little, if any rain.

The area fire danger is high, as the smoke from the Grizzly Creek fire still lingers and the Pine Gulch fire near Grand Junction has expanded to become the largest in the state’s history.

The decline came quickly, as a look at the state’s drought map can attest.

Eagle River Water & Sanitation District Communications and Public Affairs Manager Diane Johnson noted that the month started with Eagle County in the “moderate” drought classification. Three weeks later, the entire county is firmly in “extreme” category. Much of Colorado’s Western Slope is in “extreme” territory, with virtually all of the rest in the next-lowest “severe” category.

Much of the upper valley’s water supply comes from streams, with some augmentation from the Eagle Park Reservoir near Fremont Pass and the Black Lakes atop Vail Pass.

Johnson noted that there have been some releases from Eagle Park Reservoir, but some of that is to keep minimum streamflow levels to maintain aquatic life.

Cut back on watering

Virtually all the water used indoors is returned to streams after treatment. But most irrigation water ends up soaking into the soil, meaning it doesn’t return to the river.

At this point, Johnson said residents need to start cutting back most of their outdoor watering, and start shutting down irrigation systems in September. The exceptions are trees and new landscaping. Grass will come back if it gets a bit dry, she added.

The water supply is starting to get tight throughout the state.

Assistant State Climatologist Becky Bolinger said reservoir storage statewide is declining rapidly. Hot, dry weather creates more demand, especially for outdoor watering.

Statewide, reservoir storage is in the 10th to 30th percentile. Bolinger said those levels should start at the 30th percentile.

A big snow year will refill those reservoirs, Bolinger said. But, she added, a poor snow year in the winter of 2020-’21 will mean real trouble for reservoir levels.

In Eagle County, the reservoir for upper valley supplies is snowpack and soil moisture, augmented by summer rains. When those rains don’t come, streamflows drop below their already-low normal levels this time of year.

The lack of summer rain has done no favors to local forests and wildlands.

Dry conditions drive fire danger

Tracy LeClair is the community risk manager and public information officer for the Avon-based Eagle River Fire Protection District. LeClair said fire danger is “very high” for both the Dowd Junction area and the western valley.

“It’s still super dry,” LeClair said, nothing that local fuels are easily sparked by just about any ignition source. The county is now in Stage 2 fire restrictions, which essentially ban all outdoor burning of any kind.

The good news, LeClair said, is that the small fires started locally haven’t been human-caused, sparked instead by lightning.

“As awful as (this summer’s) fires have been, we’re hopeful it’s caused people to stop and think,” LeClair said.

Of course, some people aren’t paying attention.

“We got a call last week about campfires above Minturn,” LeClair added.

There doesn’t seem to be much relief on the horizon.

“The (U.S.) Climate Prediction Center has been very consistent all summer — we’re likely to have warmer than average and drier than average conditions,” Bolinger.

There might be some relief in early September. But, Bolinger added, precipitation is likely to be spotty. That means the drought map will probably get worse before it gets better.

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at smiller@vaildaily.com.


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