#ColoradoClimate: Weekly Climate, Water and #Drought Assessment of the Intermountain West

Click here to read the current assessment. Click here to go to the NIDIS website hosted by the Colorado Climate Center.

#Drought news: D4 (Exceptional Drought) expanded in Four Corners

Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:


The southern High Plains’ second wildfire outbreak in less than a week preceded the arrival of storm system that provided much-needed rainfall on April 20-21. Rainfall in the Plains’ drought-affected areas generally totaled around an inch or less. (Additional rain fell across portions of the central and southern Plains on April 24-25 but will be largely reflected next week.) The fires peaked in intensity on April 17, when southwesterly winds fanned flames amid soaring temperatures, but continued into the following day when winds shifted to a northwesterly direction. Oklahoma’s two largest April wildfires—the Rhea Fire (in Dewey County) and the 34 Complex (in Woodward County)—were nearly fully contained by April 24 after destroying more than seven dozen structures and charring approximately 350,000 acres of brush and grass. Meanwhile, drought continued to intensify in parts of the Southwest, where dry, windy weather prevailed. In contrast, another round of heavy rain struck portions of the South and East, as the slow-moving storm system that had produced beneficial rainfall on the southern Plains eventually drifted eastward…


A striking contrast between drought and non-drought areas persisted in a southwest-to-northeast oriented band stretching across north-central Texas and central Oklahoma. Rain provided modest drought relief in Oklahoma and northern Texas, but did not reach most of the region’s other drought-affected areas. Amarillo, Texas, received precipitation totaling 0.49 inch on April 20-21, boosting its year-to-date total to 0.74 inch (20 percent of normal). Meanwhile, some expansion of dryness (D0) and moderate to extreme drought (D1 to D3) was observed across western, central, and southern Texas. By April 22, the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicated that topsoil moisture was rated 67% very short to short in Texas and 53% very short to short in Oklahoma. The value in Oklahoma represented a 19-point improvement from the previous week’s value of 72% very short to short. The southern Plains’ rain also aided wildfire containment efforts. Through April 24, U.S. year-to-date wildfires had consumed 0.96 million acres of vegetation, compared to the 10-year average of 0.85 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Just to the east, wet weather persisted in the mid-South, where topsoil moisture was at least one-third surplus on April 22 in Mississippi (49%), Tennessee (46%), and Arkansas (35%)…

High Plains

Following the previous week’s significant drought reductions across the northern Plains, there were no further changes during the drought-monitoring period that ended on the morning of April 24. However, some short-term precipitation deficits have been observed during the last month near the Canadian border in North Dakota and Minnesota, and this area will be closely monitored. Through April 24, month-to-date precipitation totaled 0.15 inch (21 percent of normal) in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and 0.28 inch (25 percent) in International Falls, Minnesota. Farther south, high winds and dramatic temperature fluctuations preceded the April 20-21 rainfall event. For example, Dodge City, Kansas, notched consecutive daily-record lows (19 and 23°F, respectively) on April 15-16, followed by a daily-record high of 94°F on April 17. Dodge City also clocked a wind gust to 66 mph on the 17th, shortly after the passage of a strong cold front ended the short-lived hot spell. By April 19, daily-record lows were observed in Kansas locations such as Russell (26°F) and Wichita (31°F). (Russell and Wichita had also reported daily-record lows on April 16—with 18 and 21°F, respectively.) Some additional precipitation arrived on April 24, as the monitoring period ended. In most cases, the precipitation was highly beneficial but did not provide significant or sustained drought relief. On April 22, topsoil moisture was rated 64% very short to short in Kansas and 53% very short to short in Colorado. For both states, that represented an 8-point improvement (from 72 and 61% very short to short, respectively). Winter wheat condition actually declined during the week ending April 22, with the portion of the crop rated very poor to poor increasing from 24 to 29% in Colorado and from 46 to 49% in Kansas…


Mostly dry weather prevailed during the drought-monitoring period that ended on the morning of April 24, except for some snow in the central Rockies. In eastern Oregon, moderate drought (D1) was expanded where recent dryness has reduced topsoil moisture and caused a deterioration in rangeland and pasture conditions. Statewide, Oregon’s topsoil moisture was rated 26% very short to short by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on April 22, up from 18% the previous week. On the same date, USDA rated 28% of Oregon’s rangeland and pastures in very poor to poor condition. Farther south, ongoing and intensifying drought continued to threaten water supplies in portions of the Four Corners States. Exceptional drought (D4) was expanded in the Four Corners region, as two smaller D4 areas were merged. Extreme drought (D3) was expanded in parts of eastern Utah and southern Colorado. On April 22 in New Mexico, topsoil moisture was 90% very short to short, while subsoil moisture was 92% very short to short. New Mexico’s winter wheat was rated 71% very poor to poor, while rangeland and pastures were 58% very poor to poor. Arizona’s rangeland and pastures were in even worse shape-79% very poor to poor on April 22, compared to the statewide 5-year average of 34%. In the hardest-hit drought areas, Southwestern snowpack remained abysmal-or had already melted-leaving little hope for spring and summer runoff. Meanwhile, statewide reservoir storage on April 1 stood at 72% of average for the date in Arizona and 70% in New Mexico. Arizona’s Verde River system contained just 44% of its average April 1 storage, down sharply from 133% at the same time a year ago…

Looking Ahead

A storm system crossing the Southeast will drift into the Mid-Atlantic States on Friday and reach eastern Canada during the weekend. Meanwhile, a Pacific storm will traverse the Northwest and northern Plains, bearing rain and snow. Five-day precipitation totals could reach 1 to 2 inches or more along the northern Atlantic Coast and from the Pacific Northwest to the northern Rockies. In contrast, dry weather will prevail during the next 5 days in much of the Midwest, as well as southern California and the Desert Southwest.

The NWS 6- to 10-day outlook for May 1 – 5 calls for the likelihood of above-normal precipitation in the Southwest, as well as the central and southern Plains, mid-South, and Midwest. In contrast, generally warmer- and drier-than-normal weather should prevail in the middle and southern Atlantic States, the Pacific Northwest, and northern California.

From the USDA via The FencePost:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has designated Mesa and Otero counties in Colorado as primary natural disaster areas due to losses and damages caused by a recent drought.

Farmers and ranchers in the following contiguous counties in Colorado also qualify for natural disaster assistance. Those counties are: Bent, Delta, Gunnison, Las Animas, Pitkin, Crowley, Garfield, Kiowa, Montrose and Pueblo.

Farmers and ranchers in the contiguous counties of Grand and San Juan in Utah also qualify for natural disaster assistance.

Qualified farm operators in the designated areas eligible for the Farm Service Agency’s emergency (EM) loans, provided eligibility requirements are met. Farmers in eligible counties have eight months from the date of the declaration of April 12, 2018, to apply for loans to help cover part of their actual losses. FSA will consider each loan application on its own merits, taking into account the extent of losses, security available and repayment ability. FSA has a variety of programs, in addition to the EM loan program, to help eligible farmers recover from the impacts of this disaster.

Other FSA programs that can provide assistance, but do not require a disaster declaration, include: Operating and Farm Ownership Loans; the Emergency Conservation Program; Livestock Forage Disaster Program; Livestock Indemnity Program; Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees and Farm-Raised Fish Program; and the Tree Assistance Program. Interested farmers may contact their local USDA service centers for further information on eligibility requirements and application procedures for these and other programs. Additional information is also available online at http://disaster.fsa.usda.gov.

From the Associated Press (Ken Miller) via WeatherBug.com:

Extreme and exceptional drought conditions have contributed to wildfires in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico, delaying the growth of or destroying grass and wheat used to feed cattle in spring.

“Finding hay out here in this part of the state is next to impossible,” according to rancher Darrel Shepherd of Custer, Oklahoma, about 80 miles (129 kilometers) west of Oklahoma City. “Pastureland is really hard to find right now … the wheat, with the drought and all, the wheat is no good.”

Northwestern Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Panhandle — nearly 20 percent of the state — are rated in exceptional drought, the most severe category. Exceptional drought is also reported in parts of the Texas Panhandle, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico and in Utah and Arizona.

Federal agriculture officials in New Mexico said ranchers may not have feed to maintain their herd sizes and that some are already trimming their herds, while farmers along the Rio Grande are bracing for less water to irrigate their crops.

In northwestern Oklahoma, two large wildfires that burned about 545 square miles (1412 sq. kilometers) destroyed pastures, but rains this past weekend helped firefighters bring the flames under control and began the process of restoring grassland.

“This last weekend was a godsend … not enough to erase the drought,” said Oklahoma State University agricultural economist Derrell Peel. “But it’s a first step and the time of year is right for the grass to green up in the next few weeks.”

Rains are needed to continue through at least the beginning of June in order to prevent Oklahoma ranchers from being faced with downsizing herds, Peel said, but even if that happens, he doesn’t expect any impact on the price of beef.

“I don’t think this area is big enough,” Peel said. “We’re still seeing an increase in beef production” nationwide.

Both Shepherd and Woods County Extension Agent Greg Highfill said ranchers in surrounding states are donating as much hay as possible to help keep livestock fed.

“Because of the drought there isn’t as much extra hay to be donated as in other years,” according to Shepherd. “People are being very generous and giving what extra hay they have.”

Shepherd said he doesn’t know where the hay is coming from, but is thankful for what has been provided.

“There’s a lot of hay from out of state being shipped in. We don’t have all we need but we’re getting more in each day,” he said. “You just can’t thank those people enough.”

From The Associated Press (Kelly P. Kissell):

The drought is rooted in a dry spell that began in October and is considered “extreme” from southern California to central Kansas. Conditions are even worse in the Four Corners region and the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles, warranting their description as “exceptional.”


Climatologists consider the months from October to April to be a “recharge” period, with showers and snow replenishing water supplies in the Southern Plains. However, the most recent significant rain in the area came in early October.

“The memory of that precipitation has long went out the back door,” Fuchs said. Temperatures have largely been above normal over the same period, triggering evaporation that can carry a lot of moisture away before it has a chance to soak into the ground. There is very little snowpack remaining except on the highest peaks.

A map Fuchs presented during a conference call with reporters showed a sharp distinction on either side of a line from near Fort Worth, Texas, to near Chicago. Moist areas of Arkansas and Missouri were within 100 miles of arid conditions in Kansas and Oklahoma…

Wildfires have scarred many areas of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. Oklahoma forestry officials said Monday that the Rhea fire, which had burned 448 square miles (1,160 square kilometers) was 74 percent contained but not expected to spread beyond existing fire lines because of higher humidity and lighter winds.

#Colorado water managers studying #LakePowell levels issues — @AspenJournalism #ColoradoRiver #COriver

Colorado River Basin in Colorado via the Colorado Geological Survey

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith) via The Aspen Times:

About 120 water managers gathered Wednesday to discuss how to keep enough water in Lake Powell and avoid a demand from downstream states for more water under the Colorado River Compact, and they agreed to keep studying potential solutions.

The meeting, held at the Ute Water Conservancy District, brought together members of four Western Slope basin roundtables to discuss the third phase of an ongoing “risk study” that seeks to define how much water might be needed to flow toward Lake Powell during a sustained dry period instead of being put to use growing crops.

Basin roundtable boundaries

The basin roundtables operate under the guise of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, a state agency charged with planning to meet the state’s water needs and its obligations under the interstate water compact negotiated in 1922.

If Lake Powell — which today is 52 percent full and at 3,610 feet in elevation — drops below 3,490 feet, then the hydropower plant in Glen Canyon Dam, which backs up the Colorado River to form Lake Powell, won’t be able to continue producing electricity.

And as the water level in the reservoir falls, it also makes it increasingly hard to release the volume of water necessary for the upper Colorado River basin states to meet their obligation to the lower basin states under the compact.

“I don’t want to project that it’s coming, but the possibility of it happening exists,” said Karen Kwon, an attorney at the Colorado Attorney General’s Office who works on Colorado River issues, about the potential for a “compact call.”

And she told the audience of water managers and users that the “hydrology is tanking” as the upper Colorado River basin continues to be mired in an 18-year dry period.

An ongoing study conducted by a consultant for the Colorado River Water Conservation District has found that a series of severely dry years could produce the need to send 1 million acre-feet — about 10 Ruedi Reservoirs full of water — down to Lake Powell to keep it at sustainable levels.

“Those are big volumes of water,” Carron said, and not easy to find in a pinch, especially after water in big upstream reservoirs such as Flaming Gorge also has been released to bolster water levels in Lake Powell.

The water is envisioned to come from ranchers who voluntarily agree to fallow their fields, which in Colorado are mainly fields of alfalfa, in exchange for money, and send the water toward Lake Powell instead of using it for irrigation.

But there is a long list of unanswered questions about the concept, including where the water from the “conserved consumptive use” effort could be stored until needed.

John Carron of Hydros Consulting of Boulder, who is leading the water-modeling study, showed a graphic Wednesday of a “hypothetical” reservoir, or “water bank,” near the Colorado-Utah state line that would hold 1 million acre-feet of water, but he also said the saved water could be stored in Lake Powell itself or in existing reservoirs in Colorado.

“The best place to put it is in Lake Powell,” said Eric Kuhn, the former general manager of the Colorado River District, who continues to work part-time for the district.

However, right now there is no way, at least from a policy or legal standpoint, for the upper basin states to store water in Lake Powell in a designated, and protected, pool of water within the reservoir, as there is in Lake Mead.

And, Carron said, trying to “bank” 1 million acre-feet of water in existing reservoirs in the upper basin states is problematic.

Alden Vander Brink, the manager of the Rio Blanco Water Conservation District in Rangely, and a board member at the Colorado River District, asked why not work toward building new “wet water” storage projects.

Vander Brink is currently leading an effort to gain approval for a dam and reservoir called the Wolf Creek Reservoir, which would hold up to 1.2 million acre-feet of water from the White River.

A lot of questions were posed but left unanswered at Wednesday’s meeting, including the true cost of trying to reduce the risk of Lake Powell dropping too low, how water left in rivers and streams could be guaranteed to reach the big reservoir, how a compact call would actually unfold and who it would affect, and how much money it might take to entice ranchers to fallow fields and participate in a large water banking or “demand management” program.

Rachel Richards, a Pitkin County Commissioner who serves on the Colorado River Basin roundtable, said Wednesday she was concerned that a demand management program doesn’t try to solve a water shortage problem while at the same time allowing new growth and development to make the problem worse.

She also said the solution to the state’s water shortages should be equally shared on both sides of the Continental Divide.

At the end of the meeting, none of the attendees disagreed with the proposal to keep studying the issue. A proposed outline of the next phase of the study is to be brought back before the basin roundtables and then to the directors of the Colorado Water Conservation Board for their review and approval.

Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times on the coverage of rivers and water. More at http://www.aspenjournalism.org.