Recent rain has no impact on county drought conditions
The rain has, however, had a positive impact on fire danger as the county returns to Stage 1 fire restrictions on Friday
Despite the recent onset of rain in Eagle County, drought conditions remain at historic levels, ranging from severe to exceptional across the region.
Eagle County, along with almost all of Western Colorado, has been experiencing this drought cycle for over a year now. And conditions across the Western Slope remain dry enough that late last week, Gov. Jared Polis declared a drought emergency for 21 Western Colorado counties, including Eagle County.
According to Becky Bolinger, the assistant state climatologist at the Colorado Climate Center, these conditions became severe late last summer and early fall due to a lack of monsoon moisture, no precipitation and very hot temperatures. And then, conditions spiraled from there.
“When we started the cold season last year, we were already working at a deficit with dry soils and low stream flows and then you put that on hold as you start your snow accumulation, but you know that these are deficits that are going to come back in the spring when melt-off starts,” Bolinger said.
These deficits are extremely hard to overcome, even when the rain rolls in.
And so recovery from the current drought as well as any improvement on the National Weather Service’s drought monitoring index relies on a few factors.
“One of the biggest ones that we look at is precipitation, and not just the precipitation that has fallen over the last week, but how much of a deficit does that cover over the last three months, six months, nine months, twelve months,” Bolinger said, adding that they take into account soil moisture, vegetation, evaporative demand or how much moisture the atmosphere takes from soil, river and reservoir levels as well as “any water variable we can get our hands on.”
Eagle County this past week did experience an onset of monsoon moisture — characterized as consistent, high-pressure storms that lead to higher dew points, higher humidity and cooler temperatures — that are common for this time of year. The county experienced in the last week, depending on location, .5 inches to 1 inch depending on which part of Eagle County. However, it’s not enough to lessen drought conditions.
According to Bolinger, it will take “several weeks of consistent monsoon moisture” for the service to consider making improvements to the index.
“You’re talking a week of moisture compared to a drought that’s been in the making for over a year. And this next week, if it dries out, you’re going to go right back into the spot you were in,” Bolinger said.
Impacting the flow
Locally, the impact of the drought is most urgently experienced in the county’s rivers and streams.
On July 5, the average 24-hour river flow in Gore Creek was at 46% of normal and Eagle River was at 60% of normal near Minturn and 54% of normal near Avon. This is slightly higher than what the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District — which provides water from Vail to Edwards — was seeing just days ago.
“Has the rain helped? Sure, it helps stream flows a little bit,” said Diane Johnson, communications and public affairs manager for the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District. “But it buys us a few days.”
One of the reasons that the rain only helps short-term is that there is a “soil moisture deficit.” Meaning that, regardless of whether the afternoon storms continue or not, stream flows will quickly drop because the soils are in a moisture deficit.
“Soils from last year were already so dry that the soils are now desperate for water,” said Holly Loff, executive director of Eagle River Watershed Council.
And as the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District relies on the stream to provide its service to customers, it is looking to initiate long-term behavior changes in its customers to tackle long-term drought conditions. These look beyond temporary relief like rain.
Which is why, Johnson said, another critical thing the district hopes the rain will bring is decreased outdoor water use. “If we want healthy streams and fish and we like all the things that come with streams, then we need to figure out how to use less water outdoors to leave some of that water in the streams,” she said. “Water use is directly connected to what’s flowing in the streams.”
“Yes, it’s a drought year so we really need people to be very mindful of their water use, but also we’ve been in a decades-long drought, and we actually want to get people to stop overusing water permanently. We are working directly with our customers on long-term behavior change to really sustain us into the future,” Johnson said.
For the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, some of these long-term solutions include implementing water use regulations, encouraging customers decrease their outdoor water use as it does not get back into the stream and increasing education around the connection between water use and stream levels.
And as the drought remains and stream levels remain low, the rising temperature of the water is also threatening the county’s natural ecosystem.
“If you think about a pot of water, if you have barely any water in the pot and you put it on to boil, it’s going to boil a lot faster than a full pot,” Loff said. “I use that metaphor in thinking about our rivers and if the flows are already low and the sun is beating down on it and the air temperatures are high, there’s not a lot of water and it heats up really quick.”
According to Loff, once water temperatures get close to 70 degrees — which it has reached on portions of the upper Colorado River including in Dotsero — there is a decrease in oxygen in the water, it intensifies the danger to fish.
“If people are fishing at the same time, it’s the last straw for a lot of those fish and they’re finding dead fish floating in the river,” Loff said. “That’s a huge economic impact to our community and our wildlife.”
While temperatures in the Eagle River remain at a safe level for local fish — “for now,” Loff said — the Colorado River is facing possible full voluntary closures, which would restrict all use on the rivers.
You can sign up for river and stream temperature reports at erwc.org.
Downgrading fire restrictions
The rain has had some positive effects, however.
On Friday, July 9, Eagle County will drop back to Stage 1 Fire Restrictions. The county joins Pitkin and Summit counties as well as the Bureau of Land Management and White River National Forest in downgrading to Stage 1.
According to Tracy LeClair, the public information officer for the Eagle River Fire Protection District, this decision was made based on “the energy release components of the fuels, the rain we’ve been getting, what are the fuel moistures and what’s the potential for fire starts and fire spread.”
When determining whether or not to drop these restrictions, the group of stakeholders doesn’t necessarily take into account the drought index. “The drought index is a national weather service specific and they monitor that for what’s our long term drought regionally and the fire restrictions are based more on the fuels and the ability for these fuels to burn and what that fire behavior would look like should we have a start,” LeClair said.
This decision comes as fire activity has slowed significantly at the Sylvan Fire, just south of Eagle. The recent rain and cooler temperatures has aided firefighters in containing the fire, which has remained at nearly 6 square-miles in size for the past week.
“We’ve seen consistently reduced fire danger for the last few days,” said Kelsha Anderson, U.S. Forest Service public information officer. “It’s smoldering, of course there’s still fire on the interior, but it’s not actively increasing, it hasn’t been for the last week and a lot of what they’re doing now is monitoring, maintaining, just looking for local heat sources.”
As the local crews continue to monitor the process, increasing containment and releasing firefighting resources, the local Forest Service is hoping to soon reduce the closures in the area surrounding the fire.
For more information on the Sylvan Fire, visit inciweb.nwcg.gov
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at email@example.com.