From The Arizona Republic (Serena O’Sullivan):
A wet winter and spring rains mean this is the first week in 20 years in which there were no significant drought conditions in the lower 48 states, the United States Drought Monitor reported.
“The good news is that just like the rest of country, none of Arizona remains in a severe or exceptional drought,” Phoenix National Weather Service meteorologist Marvin Percha said. “It’s great news in short and medium terms of fire danger levels and water supplies.”
A recent tweet from NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information cites “wet conditions” as the source of this shift in the country’s drought levels.
According to Percha, much of the country has seen wetter than normal conditions over the last few years.
“Of course, here in Arizona, we had all the rain from the remains of Hurricane Rosa and Sergio, and a decently wet winter,” he said…
Even as the drought has eased across the Southwest, concerns remain that the region’s 19-year run of mostly dry years could continue, especially as global warming adds to strains on water supplies.
Earlier this month, a group of experts in a state advisory group recommended to Gov. Doug Ducey that a declaration of drought in Arizona should remain in effect.
Reservoirs on the Colorado River, which supplies about 40 percent of Arizona’s water, have declined dramatically in recent years. And one wet winter isn’t projected to be enough for Lake Mead and Lake Powell to recover.
From KKTV.com (Lindsey Grewe):
The Colorado Climate Center says just .01 percent of the state is still classified as abnormally dry.
“Two pixels in Montezuma and Yuma Counties that are too small to even see on the map,” the center wrote on Facebook. “With more precipitation in the forecast, it’s possible the map will be wiped completely clean in next week’s map!”
It’s the lowest number since the U.S. Drought Monitor was established nearly 20 years ago.
The numbers are a stark turnaround from February when two-thirds of the state was classified at some degree of drought. Even in late March following a bomb cyclone and a historic avalanche cycle, nearly half the state was still in a drought.
Meteorologists say an active jet-stream pattern that set up over Colorado in mid-February set off the dramatic about-face. April and May continued the trend with predominantly wetter-than-usual and cooler-than-usual weather.
From Colorado Public Radio (Michael Elizabeth Sakas, Natalia Navarro and Kelley Griffin):
Drought is officially over in the state, for the first time in 19 years. Farmers can maintain crops and livestock. Colorado could get through this wildfire season without seeing massive fires like last year’s.
And Denver Water is pleased as reservoirs rise. Snowpack in the Colorado River basin is 145 percent of normal, while the South Platte is at 124 percent. Those mountain areas serve Denver Water’s 1.4 million customers on the front range, as well as other communities like Aurora and Littleton.
But as the snow melts, it takes a fine-tuned approach to manage the flowing water that rushes down mountainsides and through tunnels, into reservoirs and over spillways and along creeks and rivers.
Some mountain communities are bracing for it to go badly. Hinsdale County in southwestern Colorado is stocking up on sandbags while trying to head off the flooding that can result from raging streams clogged up by the debris churned up by avalanches.
The Best Case Scenario
Denver Water manager Nathan Elder said so far things are going well.
“The cool temperatures have really slowed runoff down and it’s occurring in a more controlled way, to contrast if we had a really hot, sunny spring where it all melts really quick,” which can cause flooding, Elder said.
He checks lots of data every week — snow pack of course, but also projected temperatures that affect the rate of snow melt; windy weather, which alters how much snow evaporates; and soil moisture, to calculate how much snowmelt will get soaked up by the ground and never make it to reservoirs.
After noting all that, Elder decides how much room to maintain in reservoirs including the one in Dillon so it won’t overflow.
“We’re currently holding Dillon Reservoir steady at 25 feet-down (from full) to prepare for that snowpack runoff,” Elder said…
Hinsdale County is bracing for the worst.
People in the remote county, which sits east of Telluride in the Rio Grande and San Juan national forests, have seen more avalanches this winter than anyone can remember. Twelve slides were big enough to get names. The slides left massive debris fields, dotted with whole trees and large boulders, said Michael Davis, the public information officer for the Hotchkiss Fire District. Davis is helping coordinate the emergency planning in Hinsdale County.
Hinsdale is considered the most remote and roadless county in the lower 48 states. While most of those avalanches don’t directly affect residents, the trees and boulders pulled along in the slides do cause problems. All that debris jams up old earthen dams in the mountains designed to manage the flow of the Henson Creek. Now, officials are worried the dams could break.
“If that should happen, then we would end up with a large volume of water shooting down the Henson creek, carrying massive amounts of debris into Lake City,’ Davis said.
Experts from federal, state and county agencies are working to avert such a flood, but it isn’t easy. The remoteness of the county means there are few roads to deliver equipment into the areas where they need to clear debris.
Officials are blocking a couple of county roads that would normally open up Memorial Day weekend because they don’t want the public in canyons that could be swept by flooding.
Because officials are so closely monitoring on the creek, if the worst does happen, Davis said they’ll be able to give residents plenty of advance warning to get out,.
The county has also called for volunteers to fill sandbags.
From KKTV.com (Lindsey Grewe):
Springs Utilities says while local storage contains 248 days of demand, they currently have two and half years of demand overall in storage.
From The Kiowa County Press (Chris Sorensen):
With the latest report from the National Drought Mitigation Center, Colorado is free from drought, and has just 0.01 percent of the state in abnormally dry conditions.
At the start of the calendar year, two-thirds of the state was experiencing some level of drought, and only 18 percent was drought-free. Exceptional drought – the worst category – covered 11 percent of the state, while an additional 16 percent was under exceptional conditions. At its peak in late 2018, nearly half of the state was in the two worst categories.
The last time Colorado was nearly completely free from drought and abnormal dryness was nearly 10 years ago in late July and early August 2009. At that time, just 0.28 percent of the state was abnormally dry. Ninety-eight percent of the state was drought free in mid-August 2015…
Severe drought was eliminated in New Mexico this week, marking the first time in the history of the United States Drought Monitor that the continental U.S. had been free from severe, extreme, and exceptional drought. At the same time extreme drought made its first-ever appearance in Alaska.
From The Greeley Tribune (Tyler Silvy):
Drought-free conditions have visited Colorado for the first time in nearly two years, and the state is in a better water position than it has been in the past two decades…
For cities like Greeley, being out of the drought is good, but it’s not life-changing. Greeley draws water from four river basins, and has many high-mountain reservoirs for storage. Those redundancies help the city weather dry years, meaning Greeley doesn’t live by the snowpack every single year.
Still, a strong snowpack and a run of several wet years would allow Greeley to save more water in its reservoirs. It’s also allowing Greeley to sell more of its water to farmers and ditch companies…
Farmers and agriculture irrigation companies
Years with better snowpack and higher, longer river flows are great for both parties. There’s more water to go around for everybody. It’s called a “free river,” and it’s something that hasn’t happened very often in the past couple of decades. In dry times, only the senior-most water rights holders can draw from the river while others have to dry up their fields or ditches or reservoirs.
This year will likely feature more “free river,” meaning there’s no seniority-based call on the river, for a longer period of time, meaning ditches will run, reservoirs will fill and fields will soak up the riches.
When asked who the big winners were in wet years, Jim Yahn, the South Platte Basin Director for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said it’s definitely agriculture. Then he kept adding other winners in.
“When you have good flows, wet lands, environmental and recreation uses — those are all winners,” he said.
Colorado River basin folks
For Yahn, the wet year adds momentum to a basin that’s gotten quite a bit of attention recently, including the recent signing of a drought contingency plan with the seven basin states and Mexico.
“That’s a good thing,” Yahn said. “A drought kind of makes people come together and look at a basin a little bit differerently and come up with ways to handle this across the board.”
That basin also supplies the Front Range via the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, which Northern Water manages.
From The Aspen Daily News (Curtis Wackerle):
City [of Aspen] officials are recommending that Aspen City Council lift water restrictions enacted a year ago when the area was experiencing drought conditions.
Things have changed and officials with the public works and utilities department feel that the restrictions, which limit outdoor irrigation and impose surcharges on large water users, are not necessary going into this summer.
From the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District (Diane Johnson) via The Vail Daily:
The federal snow measuring site on Vail Mountain received 2.2 inches of “snow water equivalent” in two days this week. Snow fell at about that rate in early March. Remember those pow days? The site has accumulated 3.7 inches of snow water equivalent since May 1. That’s how much it received between October 2018 and Thanksgiving — more than enough for Vail Mountain to open early with great conditions.
While May snow and cold temperatures have caused local rivers to slow down, we know the snow will eventually melt, which likely means some great whitewater. Beyond recreational pursuits, heavy May precipitation means lots of water has seeped into local soils. That’s a good thing for our forests and yards.
A big change from last year, when the Vail Mountain site “melted out” on May 15, summer rains failed to materialize, and soils quickly dried out, along with local waterways.
It’s unusual to get this much snow water equivalent in May, but not unheard of. It happened in 2008, 2003, 1999, 1995, 1984, 1983 and 1979 — the first year the federal site operated on Vail Mountain (on the heels of sustained, multi-year drought).
In other years — notably 1981, 2002, 2012, 2015 and last year — snow was rapidly melting or gone by now. Each of those years but 2015 turned out to be a big drought year in Colorado.
These differences in May weather demonstrate the variability in local precipitation and why it’s important to plan your landscape for that variability.
The water you use to sustain the outdoor spaces at your home or business depends on an adequate water supply. If you have native plants adapted to Colorado’s semi-arid climate, you probably don’t worry much about whether it’s wet or dry. If supplemental water is necessary for your landscape to thrive, that water comes from Eagle River Water & Sanitation District or your local water provider, who relies on that same variable snowfall and rain to produce clean water for indoor and outdoor purposes.
In years such as 2018, when drought caused local waterways to drop to very low levels, we prioritized river water over customers’ use of water for outdoor purposes. Outdoor areas use much more water than indoor areas and landscape irrigation has a greater impact on streamflows than indoor water use. Our staff contacted hundreds of customers who were using excessive amounts of water that disproportionately impacted our community’s limited water resources.
Putting our waterways first
That scenario is unlikely this summer, but our priorities are the same. Healthy waterways are critical to our natural environment and recreation-based economy, so we strive to balance our customers’ water needs with the rivers’ needs.
Our commitment to efficient use of our community’s water resources is just as strong, so we urge our customers to modify landscapes to ones that use water efficiently. Over the years, we have worked with many customers who were wasting water and did not know it. Armed with some information about “normal” water use and irrigation system settings, many people have happily reduced their water use, saved money and still enjoy having a beautiful yard.
One way to know whether you’re using a sensible amount of water is to check the “usage tier” in which you are billed. Customers who use water in Tier 1 have low or normal water use and pay the lowest rate. Water used in higher tiers is progressively more expensive; use in Tiers 4 and 5 is considered excessive.
Another way to better understand, and control, the water used at your home or business, is to learn about, and sign up for, WaterSmart, which is a new online tool for our customers. Rather than waiting for a monthly water bill, WaterSmart will give you almost real-time information about your water use.
Sound interesting? We hope so. Your first opportunity to learn about it includes a free lunch. Just go to the town of Vail’s Lunch with the Locals program at noon on May 29 in Lionshead Village. You can hear about it, ask questions and learn how to take control of your water use.
Diane Johnson is the Communications & Public Affairs Manager for the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District. ERWSD provides efficient, effective, and reliable water and wastewater utility services in a manner that respects the natural environment. ERWSD’s water service area is Vail and Wolcott, while the wastewater service area is Vail to Wolcott. ERWSD also operates and maintains, by contract, the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority public water system, which provides water service to Arrowhead, Avon, Bachelor Gulch, Beaver Creek, Berry Creek, Cordillera, EagleVail, and Edwards.