Going dry: Warm weather, early snowmelt raise fears of another drought like 2002

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Colorado appears to be heading into a severe drought similar to the one in 2002 that brought raging wildfires and extreme water shortages across the state.

A weak winter snowpack combined with windy, hot weather during March, April and May have forecasters, firefighters and reservoir managers concerned.

“Current conditions are correlating with the 2002 drought,” confirmed Mike Chamberlain, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction. “We had a light snow year, it all melted off a month early, followed by a persistent dry trend.

“One difference this year is that we’ve had some wet years leading up to where we are now, so that helps reservoir storage, whereas 2002 was preceded by several drought years.”

As a result in 2002, Colorado was hit by major wildfires, including the Missionary Ridge fire near Durango that consumed 73,000 acres; the Hayman Fire, Colorado’s largest, that scorched 138,000 acres; the Coal Seam fire near Glenwood Springs that burned 12,000 acres and the Long Mesa Fire at Mesa Verde National Park that torched 2,600 acres and threatened major structures.

In May there were several wildfires in Southwest Colorado and New Mexico. As of June 1, the Little Sand Fire near Pagosa Springs had burned 4,200 acres and the Sunrise Mine wildfire north of Paradox, Colo., had consumed more than 6,000 acres.

Meanwhile, in May of this year New Mexico experienced its worst wildfire on record. As of June 1, a massive lightning-sparked blaze in the Gila National Forest had grown to 200,000 acres, equal to 300 square miles.

Here in the Four Corners, the moisture content of wood fuels on BLM and Forest Service land is below normal, an indicator of drought conditions, reports Brad Pietruszka, a firefighter and engine captain with the BLM.

In the piñon-juniper forests of Phil’s World east of Cortez, moisture content for deadfall is at 4 percent, and at the trailhead of Boggy Draw north of Dolores, the moisture content for fuels is at 6 percent, half the normal amount for this time of year.

“We usually don’t see it this dry until the end of June, so we are about a month ahead,” Pietruszka said. “The likelihood for larger fires is greater than in the last few years.” He noted that recent frosts have killed off oak brush in the forest, adding potential fuel for wildland fires.

Reservoirs, rafting at risk

Just how bad the drought of 2002 really was is difficult to measure objectively. In a 2004 paper entitled, “Drought 2002 in Colorado – An Unprecedented Drought or a Routine Drought?”, researchers with the University of Colorado, NOAA and others wrote:

“In the historical perspective, the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s were more severe over parts of the eastern plains of Colorado, while the northern Front Range of Colorado was drier in the mid 1950s. Based on the instrumental record, however, observed statewide precipitation anomalies in 2001-02 were among the most severe of the last century.”

Droughts can be devastating to farmers and ranchers. In the early 2000s, irrigators dependent on McPhee reservoir suffered shortages due to the drought, as the water level in the lake sank to unprecedented lows. Ranchers saw grazing permits cut back or suspended.

The impacts to wildlife can be equally severe. Some warmwater nativefish populations and sport fisheries as well as mule-deer herds are only now beginning to return to levels seen pre-2002.

Recreationists likewise were hard hit by the low-water years. The Dolores River below the dam did not see a whitewater release for four seasons between 2001 and 2004 until the drought broke in 2005, finally allowing a boating season in the lower canyons.

The positive difference this year is that preceding years were much wetter. McPhee Reservoir has been refilling nicely over the last few years, and thanks to the carryover storage from 2011, there will be no shortages this irrigation season, reports Vern Harrell, Bureau of Reclamation liaison for the Dolores Project.

“It is extremely dry and looking a little like 2002,” he said. “Last winter we were 16,000 acre-feet higher than average, so that helped tremendously for this year’s storage.”

Peak irrigation demand, coupled with below- average inflow from the Dolores River, has drawn down the reservoir by 10 feet in elevation.

“We’ll have to have a good winter to make up the difference for next year,” Harrell said.

McPhee irrigators suffered shortages in 2002 and 2003, said Ken Curtis, an engineer with the Dolores Water Conservancy District.

However, this year looks better because “2002 had half of the Dolores inflow we have this season,” Curtis said. “But we will end up low this year and may have to go into shortage next year,” he added.

Years of relatively wet winters followed by sudden drought conditions this spring caught managers by surprise. To ensure full delivery of water shares, a previously announced whitewater boating release for Memorial Day weekend was quickly cancelled when the effects of hot weather and high winds on marginal snowpack were realized.

‘Conditions deteriorate’

The data comparisons between 2002 and 2012 are troubling, agrees Jim Andrus, a meteorologist and Cortez weather observer for the National Weather Service.

“This is the driest start since 2002, but not quite as nasty,” he said. “Those high winds act like a blowtorch on our snowpack.”

In 2002, March, April and May saw 54 percent, 14 percent, and 11 percent of normal precipitation, respectively.

For 2012, precipitation levels were 19 percent in March, 44 percent for April and just 3 percent of normal for May.

The first five months of 2002 brought in just 0.98 inches of precipitation, Andrus said. This year is at 2.5 inches thanks to an above-average February snowfall, but it is still way below the normal range.

The ocean-climate phenomenon known as La Niña/El Niño originates in the Pacific off the coast of Peru and has an influence on weather in the Southwest. When the waters in that part of the Pacific cool down, the phenomenon is known as La Niña, which has a tendency to bring dry weather to the Four Corners, the current trend.

Climatologists report a lingering La Niña condition, which is typically followed by El Niño, a warming of the Pacific that usually brings wetter weather to the Southwest. Currently 95 percent of Colorado is experiencing some level of drought, reports

Wendy Ryan, a climatologist with the Climate Center at Colorado State University. Statewide snowpack on April 1, which is generally used as a benchmark for water supply, was a mere 52 percent of normal. In 2002 at this time it was 53 percent of normal.

Droughts are rated on a scale from 0, which is mild, to 4, extremely severe.

“We’ve gone from an abnormally dry condition (D0) to a moderate drought (D1) and we expect conditions to continue to deteriorate,” Ryan told the Free Press. “New Mexico is experiencing a D2 or severe drought.”

Ryan said the one-month outlook for the Southwest shows below-average precipitation, and the three-month outlook for temperatures predicts hotter-than-normal levels.

“We hope to see a full transition into El Niño where the chances are better for wetter weather,” she said.

“Cooler temperatures and a good monsoon season, which favors southern Colorado, is our best hope as well.”

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From June 2012.