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Eagle County could face another dry summer

Runoff will be affected by soils parched from 2020 drought

Firefighters work on a controlled burn Tuesday, April 20, at Eagle Ranch in Eagle. Controlled burns help mitigate fuels for later in the season and provide new opportunities for plant growth. Fire officials are bracing for another rugged season of wildfires after the historic fire season of 2020.
Chris Dillmann/cdillmann@vaildaily.com

For many of us, the current drought in Western Colorado is the worst we’ve seen in our lifetimes, and the outlook isn’t great for the coming summer.

Joel Lisonbee is the Drought Information Coordinator for the National Integrated Drought Information System, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Lisonbee said drought conditions have been improving in Colorado, but primarily on the eastern side of the Continental Divide. Lisonbee noted that current 90-day outlooks aren’t good for temperature, precipitation and drought tendency.



That’s going to affect forest health, stream health and water supplies.

Eagle River Watershed Council Director Holly Loff said the lower runoff expected this spring may not give local streams enough water to self cleanse as they do during more normal years.



Runoff translates to more water, moving faster than normal. That flow can clean out stream beds, including the small spaces between rocks. That’s where insects reproduce. Fewer insects means less food for fish.

Combine that with expected warmer summer temperatures, and local fish populations will struggle.

Even if local snowpack was normal, soils throughout the region are parched from a dry summer and fall in 2020. Snowmelt will soak into the soil before much of that water reaches local streams.

Snowpack isn’t as low near the headwaters of the Eagle River or Gore Creek, but Vail Mountain’s snow is less than half of the 30-year median figure.

Fire season could be rugged

Drier-than-normal conditions can also contribute to active fire seasons. Fire officials across the region are gearing up.

Eagle Holy Cross Ranger District District Ranger Leanne Veldhuis said her office has hired a fire prevention officer for this year, and has added two positions to its Front Country Ranger program.

Education is going to be a big part of those employees’ jobs.

Velduis said the fire prevention officer will focus on community outreach, patrols and public outreach.

Front Country Rangers, funded in part by local governments, will also work to help forest users understand the rules about fire safety. Forest Service employees in 2020 put out a number of unattended campfires, some of which were wind-whipped into small wildfires.

Helicopters fill up fire retardant slurry to fight the Grizzly Creek Fire on Sunday, Aug. 16, 2020, in Glenwood Canyon near Glenwood Springs.
Chris Dillmann/cdillmann@vaildaily.com

“We can’t be everywhere at all times,” Veldhuis said, adding she hopes forest users come to understand the role they play preventing wildfires.

While fire is part of a forest ecosystem, Veldhuis noted that the equation changes when wildfires start due to out-of-control campfires or other causes.

Those fires “continue to change the landscape,” Veldhuis said.

In preparation for this fire season, Veldhuis said the U.S. Forest Service is adding resources to be available in case of wildfire.

In Vail, the Vail Fire Department’s seasonal wildfire team will show up May 3. That’s a couple of weeks earlier than normal.

Paul Cada, the department’s wildland fire specialist, said public education is a big part of the department’s work. In fact, the department recently announced a program asking residents to complete tasks related to preparing for a wildfire. Those tasks range from signing up for community alerts to improving defensible space around homes.

“Preparedness is our big push in May,” Cada said. “It’s really the time for folks to (act).”

At the Avon-based Eagle River Fire Protection District, community risk manager and public information officer Tracy LeClair said local agencies have been conducting prescribed burns and other mitigation through the late winter and early spring.

It’s a joint effort

“We’ve taken a much bigger role in trying to take on mitigation projects,” LeClair said. Reducing fuel loads won’t stop a wildland fire, but LeClair added that mitigation can help ease the spread of those fires.

It’s a team effort to work on fire prevention and firefighting, LeClair said.

“Cooperation is the name of the game,” she said. “We can’t do it alone.”

A model from the National Integrated Drought Information System, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, shows that current 90-day outlooks in Colorado, particularly on the Western Slope, aren’t good for temperature, precipitation and drought tendency.

A warm, dry summer with below-average streamflows is also concerning news for local water providers.

Eagle River Water & Sanitation District Communications and Public Affairs Manager Diane Johnson in a phone conversation was able to quickly rattle off several drought years in the past 20 or so.

“Droughts are getting more frequent and more severe,” Johnson said. The goal at the district is to “permanently reduce” the amount of water customers use.

Most of that reduction has to come from outdoor watering. Much of the district’s water supply comes from local streamflows. More than 90% of indoor water use is returned to local streams after treatment. Only about 25% of outdoor water use ends up back in streams.

Johnson urged district customers to work with their landscapers to cut back on outdoor watering.

“Far too many people are over-using water,” Johnson said, adding that local landscapers can help calculate how much water a yard needs, or come up with plans for attractive, but water efficient landscaping.

All this and more is part of what Veldhuis called “an all out effort to do the right thing.”

That effort includes both residents and visitors.

By the numbers

47%: April 26 percentage of the median “snow water equivalent” on Vail Mountain.

60%: April 1 water supply forecast for the Eagle River.

32%: Portion of Colorado in “extreme” to “exceptional” drought as of April 20.

90%: Portion of Utah in either extreme or exceptional drought.

Sources: Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, drought.gov.


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