Southwest Colorado and some of the higher elevations in the region have seen increased moisture recently that has allowed for lifting of fire restrictions, including by the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison national forests, the Bureau of Land Management’s Montrose-based Uncompahgre Field Office, and Montrose County, all on Friday.
But the picture has been different, as in drier, in the Grand Valley. Through Friday, Grand Junction was experiencing its driest July in a decade, with just 0.08 inches for the month, according to National Weather Service data. It hasn’t been drier since just 0.02 inches fell during all of July 2008.
Charnick said that by this time in an average July Grand Junction has received about a half-inch of rain for the month.
The summer monsoon season typically brings moisture up from the south into much of western Colorado. But Charnick said high pressure to the south “is sort of directing the monsoonal moisture more to our west.”
A clockwise circulation forms around that high pressure, so what’s needed is for the high pressure to move a bit east so moisture from the south is brought up into the area, he said.
Still, Charnick said the area isn’t necessarily running behind in getting monsoonal rains.
“Usually August is a better month for that monsoonal moisture” in Grand Junction, Charnick said. “So while we are a little bit below average right now we’re still very early on in this whole monsoon pattern, so things can shift in the month of August.”
He noted that average precipitation in August in Grand Junction is 0.95 inches, compared to 0.61 inches in July. The monsoon can extend into September.
“Actually September is usually our wettest month of the year,” Charnick said, averaging 1.19 inches.
Peter Goble, climatologist and drought specialist at Colorado State University’s Colorado Climate Center, said Grand Junction is heading into its wettest time of year. He said that’s all relative, given that a month with 1.19 inches of precipitation would be considered a dry month in a lot of places. Still, any time an area is heading into its wettest season climatologically, it brings hope of getting precipitation to reduce moisture deficits, Goble said.
On the down side, Goble said if an area misses out on getting much moisture during what is supposed to be its wettest time of year, it can be stuck with a deficit for quite a while.
Goble noted that the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center is saying there’s an above-average chance of getting above-average precipitation over the next three months in western Colorado…
He said the Grand Junction area’s monsoon season typically peaks later than for a lot of the state, in late August or early September, but it’s still a bit disconcerting that it hasn’t started yet.
Essentially all of Mesa County is now in the extreme drought category — the second-worst category. Charnick said that reclassification occurred in early July.
A tiny sliver of the far southern part of the county is in the exceptional category, which is the driest. Much of the Four Corners area also is in exceptional drought.
Goble said the last time the entire county was in extreme drought was the summer of 2012. He said the county got out of the extreme drought category by the middle of the snow season in 2013.
The county reached the exceptional drought category in the summer of 2002.
Joe Burtard, spokesman for the Ute Water Conservancy District, one of the Grand Valley’s major water providers, said the current drought is one of the worst on record for his agency, one of four major episodes that also include the 2002 and 2012 droughts and one in 1977.
“This year has been a really abnormal year for us in all aspects,” he said.
He said it’s when the area moves into the extreme and exceptional drought categories that area water providers start seriously considering mandatory water restrictions, rather than the voluntary ones now in place.
“We’re really waiting to see what these monsoon rains do for the valley,” he said.
Ironically, though, those rains are expected to pose a challenge to local water providers rather than just simply benefits. The Lake Christine Fire near Basalt has charred more than 12,000 acres, and the rains are expected to bring flooding that will result in ash reaching local rivers, and ultimately the Colorado River.
Burtard said that will affect the Clifton Water District, which gets water out of the river. As a result it will impact Ute Water, which would serve as a backup water source for Clifton Water as part of an agreement among local providers to help each other in emergency situations.
That will further tax Ute Water, which already has been pulling from limited resources this summer, Burtard said.
“It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when, because when we get that monsoon rain that ash is coming our way,” he said.
Ute Water also recently purchased water rights from the Ruedi Reservoir in the Fryingpan River Valley above Basalt to help in drought years and in planning for population growth in its service area. That water also could help in a situation such as a fire on Grand Mesa that could impact watersheds serving Ute Water.
But for Ute Water to tap the Ruedi supply for any reason, the water would have to run through Basalt and down the Roaring Fork and Colorado rivers.