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Will Colorado experience 2002 drought repeat?

Cliff Thompson
Bill Jacobson drops his fly in an eddy Monday on the Brush Creek in Eagle.
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If you’ve cocked an eye skyward, you’ve probably wondered when it will snow again.

The answer will eventually become evident, but forecasters have a quicker one: “Not soon.” Forecasters are predicting clear skies and warming temperatures for the next 10 days.

This year the unanswered question of whether Colorado will experience a repeat of the 2002 drought is a little scary because it’s beginning to look like a repeat.



The snowpack now is slightly below the level it was in 2002 and the outlook for the next 10 days won’t change things because forecasters are calling for weather to be largely dry and warm. But with their experience in the vagaries of weather, they also caution that a lot of storms can arrive before the start of irrigation season, June 1.

“It’s not very encouraging precipitation-wise,” said Gary Chancy, a hydrometeorological technician with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction. “Climatologists are predicting March, April and May will bring normal precipitation and above average temperatures.”



What’s the catch?

But it will take abnormally high precipitation to reach average. That’s not good news for local tourism-dependent businesses, like Bill Perry’s Flyfishing Outfitters in Avon.



“The publicity (about the drought) probably won’t bring tourists to Colorado or Vail,” he said. “I’m disappointed that we’re into what appears to be another drought season.”

A huge high pressure system will park over the western U.S. later this week and will steer precipitation away, keeping the mountains warm and dry. Temperatures will approach or set records, Chancy said.

It’s a continuation of a three-year-long drought that is best reflected at Utah’s huge Lake Powell. That 24 million acre-foot, 186 mile-long reservoir is less than 43 percent full and the predicted spring runoff won’t even come close to filling it this year. It’s still recovering from the drawdown that occurred in 2002.

If the drought continues, experts warn that at current rates of depletion the reservoir will be empty by 2010.

Forecasters are calling for average precipitation over the next 90 days, but that won’t be enough to dampen the drought. With the warm temperatures, the snowpack is already being depleted early, as it was in 2002. Snowpack acts like a giant, frozen reservoir hanging on the mountains.

Really dry

In 2002 Eagle County and the Western U.S. experienced the worst drought in more than 300 years. It stopped snowing in March, was warm, windy and extremely dry from April through June and the snowpack melted early. Reservoirs across the region, like Summit County’s Lake Dillon, were drawn down to historic levels and the Eagle River was flowing at 30 percent of average by July 1.

The warm weather has nearly doubled the flow of the Eagle River at Avon in the last two weeks. It now is flowing at 75 cubic -feet per-second – 20 or more percent of historic averages. That’s significant because snowpack provides 80 percent of the water used in the state, and if it melts early, it will leave little water available for the height of the summer’s irrigation season.

But Gillespie remains optimistic about the remaining snow season.

“Nothing approaches 2002, even though we’re approaching that now” said Mike Gillespie, snow survey supervisor with the Natural Resource Conservation Service. “The thing about 2002 is that we had widespread drought conditions across the state and got hammered with an extremely dry spring. That’s a pretty unusual scenario that I wouldn’t expect to occur again.”

But the long-term outlook, or drought monitor, is rather pessimistic and predicting more warm and dry conditions.

“The western U.S. is still in a big drought,” Gillespie said.

The statewide snowpack average of this time of the winter is 14.7 inches, Gillespie said. So far this year the snowpack 8.9 inches. In 2002, the snow-water equivalent was 11.

The situation was similar last year, Gillespie said, when a huge March snowstorm swirled in and buried the state. That brought water levels to normal and provided the Front Range with nearly three feet of snow.

“Hopefully we’ll see a return to wet conditions,” Gillespie said. “In 1999 we had a similar March followed by a wet April and the snowpack rebounded to average that year, but that’s certainly a best-case scenario.”

Local snowpack

Snowpack moisture in the Colorado River Basin, which covers most of northwestern Colorado and Eagle County, is now at 88 percent of average. Locally the moisture in the snow is somewhat beneath that.

The snowpack’s moisture at the head of the Eagle River at Fremont Pass east of Camp Hale is 79 percent and the snowpack on Vail Mountain is 81 percent. Just to the east over Vail Pass, Copper Mountain is at 70 percent of average.

For the average water user in Eagle County, a repeat of the drought of 202 will mean dry or even brown lawns as increasingly stringent watering restrictions are enacted by water authorities.

The Eagle River Water and Sanitation District has a three-step water conservation plan for the next drought. The first step, no-watering on Mondays and odd-even daytime watering according to street addresses, is already in effect. The third step, which prevents lawn irrigation, will be triggered when the flow of the Eagle River – which provides residential water- hits 40 cubic feet per-second three days in a row.

In 2002, it went as low as 25 cubic-feet per-second before timely rains boosted river flows and reduced irrigation demand.

Drought and wildfires seem to go hand-in-hand. In arid 2002, 7.2 million acres burned across the U.S. In Colorado, fires burned more than 500,000 acres.

The 2002 Coal Seam Fire burned more than 12,000 acres and destroyed dozens of residences in Glenwood Springs. It was started by a decades-old fire in an underground coal seam that was fanned to the surface by hot, dry winds.

Cliff Thompson can be reached via e-mail at: cthompson@vaildaily.com or by calling 949-0555 ext. 450.


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