#Drought news: April-July 2020 was the 3rd driest on record for #Colorado

Click on a thumbnail graphic below to view a gallery of drought data from the US Drought Monitor.

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

This Week’s Drought Summary

This U.S. Drought Monitor week saw continued intensification of drought across parts of the western U.S. including Northern California, the Great Basin, Southwest, and parts of the Intermountain West where hot and dry conditions continued and large wildfires burned in California and Colorado. In Northern California, the National Interagency Coordinator Center is reporting 34 uncontained large fires with approximately 1,276,751 cumulative acres burned (all active fires) and more than 11,000 personnel deployed to the region. Further east, drought-related conditions continued to deteriorate in areas of West Texas where significant rainfall deficits (4 to 8 inches) have been mounting during the past 90 days as well as extreme heat and drying winds that have stressed crops and degraded rangeland conditions. In the Trans Pecos region of western Texas, the August 2019 to July 2020 period was the warmest on record—according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI). Along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, Tropical Storm Marco made landfall this week, but fortunately weakened before making landfall causing no significant damage. A much more powerful storm, Hurricane Laura (Category 4), is expected, however, to make a Gulf Coast landfall along the border of Louisiana and Texas on Thursday (August 27)—where a life-threatening storm surge, hurricane-force winds, and widespread flash flooding are expected. In the Midwest, above-normal temperatures and dryness in Iowa during the past 90-day period (3-to-7 inch rainfall deficits) led to expansion of areas of drought statewide. In the Northeast, areas of drought intensified in portions of the region including New Hampshire where streamflow levels were well-below-normal level (<10th percentile) and reports of some agricultural impacts emerged…

High Plains

On this week’s map, areas of Moderate Drought (D1) expanded in the following areas: northwestern and central North Dakota, southwestern and eastern South Dakota, and eastern and western portions of Nebraska. In eastern South Dakota, corn has been drying prematurely as a result of the recent heat and strong winds. For the week, average temperatures were well above normal across the Dakotas, Nebraska, and the plains of Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana—ranging from 2-to-10+ degrees above normal. Further south, Kansas experienced cooler-than-normal temperatures (2-to-6 degrees) for the week. Overall, the region was mainly dry with some light accumulations (generally < 1.5 inches) observed in eastern North Dakota, southern South Dakota, and western Nebraska…


During the past week, numerous large wildfires continued to burn across California leading to mandatory evacuations in some communities around the Bay Area and in other locations in Northern California. The wildfires have been creating unhealthy air quality conditions downwind of the fires in California as well as in western Nevada, and southern Oregon —with smoke plumes extending as far as away as the Midwest. During the past week, the West saw some minor cooling compared to the record-setting heat of last week; but average temperatures were still well above normal across the most of the region. On the map, areas of drought expanded and intensified across California, Nevada, and the Four Corners States. In the Four Corners states, a combination of factors have led to the current drought depiction on the map—starting with an extended period of above-normal temperatures across Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico beginning in mid-April and extending into mid-June. This warming triggered a premature melting of the snowpack across the mountain ranges of the Colorado River Basin. As summer continued, the extreme heat and a weak monsoon exacerbated the situation with numerous heat-related records broken across the region during July and August. According to NOAA NCEI, the April-July 2020 period was the 2nd driest on record in the Southwest Climate Region (Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah) while on a state level, the May-July 2020 period was the 2nd warmest on record for both Arizona and New Mexico. In terms of precipitation, April-July 2020 was the 3rd driest on record for Colorado, 4th driest for New Mexico, 5th driest for Colorado, and 6th driest on record for Utah. As of August 1, statewide reservoir storage was slightly below normal in California, Colorado, Nevada, and Oregon with New Mexico worse off at ~50% of normal while above-normal levels were observed in Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming…


On Monday, Tropical Storm Marco made landfall near the mouth of the Mississippi River after weakening significantly thus sparing the residents of the Gulf Coast of Louisiana any significant impacts while a strengthening Hurricane Laura is expected to make landfall as a dangerous hurricane early Thursday morning. On this week’s map, drought intensified (due to continued hot temperatures and mounting precipitation deficits) across Texas with western Texas as a focal point of deterioration. According to NOAA NCEI, the Trans Pecos Climate Division (Texas, Division 5) observed its warmest July on record as well as its warmest August-July period on record. Elsewhere in the region, drought intensified on the map in southwestern Oklahoma where 4-to-6 inch rainfall deficits, since June 1, exist and rangelands reportedly are in poor condition. For the week, average temperatures continued to be above normal (2 to 8 degrees) across Far West Texas while areas to the east were below normal (2 to 8 degrees). In terms of precipitation, moderate accumulations (2 to 5 inches) were observed in portions of eastern Louisiana and southern Mississippi while some light precipitation (generally <1 inch) was observed along the Texas Gulf Coast and central Texas…

US Drought Monitor one week change map ending August 25, 2020.

Looking Ahead

The NWS WPC 7-Day Quantitative Precipitation Forecast (QPF) calls for very heavy rainfall accumulations in association with Hurricane Laura making landfall along the Gulf coast of Louisiana and Texas. Along the coast, rainfall accumulations are expected to range from 3 to15 inches while areas inland in the Lower Mississippi River Basin are expected to see moderate-to-heavy accumulations (2-to-10 inches). In the Midwest, moderate rainfall accumulations (2-to-5 inches) are expected across parts of the region including Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan as well as in parts of the Northeast. Out West, generally dry conditions are forecasted with the exception of some light precipitation (generally <1inch accumulations) in isolated areas of Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. Further northward, isolated mountain showers and thunderstorms are expected in the Northern Rockies of Wyoming and Montana with light accumulations (generally <1 inch). The CPC 6-10-day Outlook calls for a moderate-to-high probability of above-normal temperatures in the Far West, Southwest, South, Southeast, and Mid-Atlantic states, while a high probability of below-normal temperatures are expected across the remainder of the West, Plains states, and the Midwest. In terms of precipitation, there is a moderate-to-high probability of above-normal precipitation across most of the eastern half of the U.S., Northern Rockies, and Alaska. Drier-than-normal conditions are forecast for the Pacific Northwest, Four Corners states, and the Gulf Coast region of Texas and Mississippi.

#Colorado farmers, ranchers hit by double, triple whammy — @WaterEdCO #drought #COVID19 #coronavirus

A farmer uses a center pivot to battle drought on a field in Center, Colo., in the San Luis Valley on Aug. 24, 2020. Credit: Allen Best

From Water Education Colorado (Allen Best):

After a hard winter finally broke in March, Patrick O’Toole hoped for a good year. Operating at the Ladder Ranch north of Steamboat Springs, along the Colorado-Wyoming border, O’Toole and his wife, Sharon, have several bands of sheep as well as cattle.

Sheep normally graze through winter amid the high desert sagebrush of Colorado’s northwest corner. Last winter’s snow was so deep, the sheep had to be moved.

Photo credit: U.S. Department of Energy via Flickr

Then came COVID-19, the pandemic that barred entry by a third of the sheepherders who normally arrive from Peru to tend the sheep grazing around Mt. Zirkel and other peaks of the Park Range. The O’Toole family figured out remedies, even putting grandchildren on the range for cattle and finding other alternatives for sheep. “We really had to improvise to have all the sheep handled correctly,” O’Toole says. A bigger issue has been the closed restaurants and cruise ships that have dampened demand for lamb chops. “Those markets fell of the edge of the table,” he says.

And then there’s the drought. The deep snows of winter—water content was still 111 percent of average in northwestern Colorado on April 1—were eviscerated by what is seemingly becoming a new normal, a warm spring robbing soils and vegetation of moisture and hence less water in the Little Snake River. It is in line with what happened across the West, a more than 100 percent snowpack in the Colorado River Basin yielding just over 50 percent of average runoff. At the headwaters north of Steamboat, O’Toole sees “crispy” surroundings and risk of wildfire that, with a dry lightning storm, would be terrifying. “The whole forest is very, very dry.”

Colorado farmers and ranchers have patience in abundance. Agriculture demands it. This year many might want a special consultation with Job. Commodity prices have sagged, COVID-19 has caused multi-faceted disruptions, and then there’s drought. Maps show the state blanketed in blotches of yellow, tan and blood red, the latter most notable in the state’s southwestern section. Conspicuously absent has been green. The summer monsoon has been stingy.

“It’s hard to find a lot of bright spots on the ag scene these days. Starting with the commodity prices, corn prices are low, wheat prices are low, livestock prices bounced off decades-lows recently,” says Tom Lipetzky, director of marketing programs for the Colorado Department of Agriculture. “A lot of this goes back to the pandemic.”

COVID-19 has affected everything from how wheat-threshing crews were organized to where food gets delivered. Dairies accustomed to filling cartons sent to schools and restaurants had to shift supplies to larger demand in grocery stores. Something similar happened to beef supply lines after the dark curtain of the coronavirus descended. Normally half of Colorado beef goes to restaurants, half to groceries. As with milk, groceries picked up the slack after restaurants closed.

There’s been a shift to local connections. The rapid spread of the coronavirus in meat-packing plants stopped production at the JBC plant near Greeley and slowed it at the Cargill plant in Fort Morgan. Smaller companies could barely keep up with demand for slaughtering and processing to fill new freezers in basements.

Highlands Square farmers market in Denver. Photo credit: Colorado.com

Farmers markets benefited from the new attention to local sourcing. Rosalind May, executive director of the Colorado Farmers Market Association, relays reports of brisk business at markets in Montrose, Durango and Alamosa.

But for farmers who depend on regional and global markets, this has been a year of struggle.

“In some ways, [COVID-19] has been the lesser of our worries,” says former Colorado Agriculture Commissioner John Stulp from his farm south of Lamar, in southeastern Colorado. “Low commodity prices are the most negative. There was downward dollar pressure in the cattle sector when the packing plants shut down because of [COVID-19] in their employees. The tariffs and trade wars hurt individuals and our communities. And drought—no stranger to southeast Colorado—aggravates the situation.”

Production of wheat, which is harvested in early summer, was down 53 percent this year in Colorado, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. That’s 46.5 million bushels compared to 98 million bushels last year. “That’s just a huge reduction,” observes Les Owen, director of conservation for the Colorado Department of Agriculture.

Drought has scorched southcentral Colorado’s San Luis Valley. On Tuesday, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and Colorado Agriculture Commissioner Kate Greenberg met with farmers and ranchers at the potato-growing powerhouse of Center, as well as with farmers at Alamosa and Saguache.

Impacts of drought have been broad but not uniform. Kelly Spitzer and her husband, Greg, own and operate three grain elevators on the Eastern Plains, one at Wiley, just north of Lamar. After five good years, she reports, they project harvest of corn for grain will be down 80 percent to 90 percent around Wiley, due in part to reduced irrigation water supplies from the Arkansas River. At the grain elevators they own at Vona and Bethune, located 160 miles southeast of Denver along Interstate 70, production is down only 50 percent. More corn there comes from areas irrigated with Ogallala Aquifer water. In both places, she reports it being “really hot and dry” for the last several weeks, creating need for even more water. “It’s been bad for the corn crop,” she says.

Most of the corn from the Wiley area will be reduced to silage, the entire plant ground up for lower-value feed for cattle, with no attempt to shell the grain. This produces less income for local communities. Still, the cattle need their feed, which will cost operators of feeder operations for both cattle and hogs more money.

The Ogallala aquifer, also referred to as the High Plains aquifer. Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration

Near Cope, 120 miles east of Denver, Troy Schneider produces wheat, corn and cattle on 1,250 acres of irrigated land and 2,600 acres of dryland. Drought has reduced the yield he can expect from the 320 acres of dryland corn he planted this year, but he hopes careful allocation of his permitted Ogallala water will deliver normal yield from his 875 acres of irrigated corn despite hot summer winds. But what price will he get for that corn?

Trade uncertainty coupled with coronavirus made the market wobbly. “The shutdown of the economy did a number on us. It definitely did,” says Schneider. Normally, he ships his corn north to the big feedlots at Yuma and also to the ethanol plant. Roughly a third of Colorado corn goes to ethanol production. But ethanol production has dropped, reflecting sliding prices for petroleum. The virus suppressed travel even as Russia and Saudi Arabia engaged in a price war, swamping global markets. And, of course, there’s the drought, part of what Schneider calls a double whammy. Some of the dryland corn will be baled, to be used for lower-quality cattle feed.

One year is bad enough. According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report issued Monday, 64 percent of the state is now considered to have poor or very poor conditions on pasture and range. Two years would be devastating. Faced with a two-year drought in 2012-2013, some cattle ranchers such as the Flying Diamond of Kit Carson expanded into the Wet Mountain Valley to become more diversified geographically.

“Widespread economic impacts of multi-season drought is something we’re not in the middle of right now and hopefully will not be,” says Terry Fankhauser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association. A second year of drought, he says, will cause livestock producers to start liquidating holdings.

“That’s why I’m really counting on this winter being a significant snowfall winter,” says Fankhauser. “It will be necessary, without a doubt.”

Allen Best is a freelance writer and editor of Mountain Town News, based in Arvada, Colo. He can be reached at allen.best@comcast.net.

#Drought conditions take their toll on Blue Mesa and other area reservoirs — The Montrose Daily Press #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Blue Mesa Reservoir September 2017

From The Montrose Daily Press (Katharhynn Heidelberg):

As drought conditions hammer the state, area reservoirs are shrinking, with Blue Mesa predicted to end the year at 23 feet below its winter target.

Despite the past winter season bringing nearly average snowpack, runoff throughout the Gunnison Basin fell well below average, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s spring forecast and runoff review, provided Aug. 20.

Warm weather brought the snowpack off the mountains early and summer monsoons failed to provide much of a meaningful drink, while extraordinarily hot, dry conditions persist.

For the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association’s storage accounts in area reservoirs, conditions are mixed.

Taylor Park Reservoir

Taylor Park Reservoir, which is at about 72 percent of full capacity, is OK for the association, manager Steve Anderson said. The UVWUA’s storage account there is full, with only about 20,000 acre feet used.

“That’s not the case with our storage in Ridgway (Reservoir). We’ll use all our storage this year out of Ridgway. We’ll have to replenish that one with the winter,” Anderson said.

Ridgway Dam

The UVWUA has been running its delivery of water to shareholders at 80 percent. “Which, in a year like we’ve had, is good,” Anderson said. “With the limited supply, we’ve managed to meet demand at 80 percent.”

The largest impoundment managed in the Aspinall Unit, Blue Mesa Reservoir, peaked at 604,000 acre feet, which is 25 feet below full.

As of Aug. 20, the reservoir was at 521,000 acre feet and peak flow targets for the Black Canyon and lower Gunnison River at Whitewater were met, although the base flow targets for Whitewater were lowered under drought rule provisions.

Aspinall Unit

Paonia Reservoir had shriveled to 2 percent of full capacity, while Silver Jack was reported at 46 percent of full.

Paonia is basically empty, but that isn’t unusual, given the dry year, BuRec hydrologist Erik Knight said.

Paonia Reservoir

“They chose to use their full supply of reservoir water as best they could, but being a small reservoir, sometimes it only lasts until August. So it’s not surprising, at least to us or them, that it’s gone already,” he said.

The reservoir is expected to stay empty as long as more senior water right priorities keep the call on the North Fork of the Gunnison, Knight said.

Other reservoirs in the Aspinall fared better, with Ridgway showing at 71 percent, Crystal at 88 percent and Morrow Point at 94 percent.

Bureau of Reclamation’s spring forecast and runoff review noted the early melt-off of the snowpack. Although rains at the start of June kept flows into reservoirs in the Aspinall Unit elevated longer than was expected, those levels plunged to “much below normal” by mid-month. Monsoon activity was anemic, providing “almost no precipitation this summer,” the report also said.

Since runoff ended, hot and dry conditions have prevailed, with near-record dry conditions occurring in April and May. Although those actual conditions caused a higher than normal forecast error, actual runoff volume still fell within the lower range of predictions.

The National Weather Service’s August weather outlook did not hold encouraging news. It found a high probability of below-normal precipitation and above-normal temperatures heading into fall…

The U.S. Drought Monitor shows all of Colorado in at least moderate drought, with Montrose and surrounding counties in either severe or extreme drought.

The monitor on Aug. 20 noted temperature-breaking records in cities across the West, as well as massive wildfires that broke out in California. The monitor’s report, too, calls the monsoon season a “bust” for much of the Southwest.

Bear hurt in fire near Durango released back to the wild — @COParksWildlife

A bear injured in a forest fire in June near Durango was released back into the wild on Monday. Images below show the bears feet when it was found and with bandages applied at CPW’s Frisco Creek facility. Photo credit: Colorado Parks and Wildlife

Here’s the release from Colorado Parks & Wildlife (Joe Lewnandnowski):

A bear injured in a fire west of Durango in June has healed and was released back to the wild on Monday (Aug. 24) by officers with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

The bear was taken to a remote location not far from where it was found. The bear hesitated for about a minute while it sniffed its new surroundings. Then it jumped from the container in the back of a CPW pick-up truck and dashed into the thick cover of the aspen forest.

“Now he’s got food, he’s got water, he’s got everything he needs,” said Wildlife Officer Steve McClung, “And I hope I never see him again.”

On June 16, firefighters at the East Canyon fire reported to the CPW Durango office that they saw a bear that appeared to be injured. Wildlife officers responded and when found the bear in a boggy area. It did not move when approached which indicated it was in a lot of pain. The bear, a male, was tranquilized and taken to CPW’s Frisco Creek wildlife rehabilitation facility in Del Norte.

The two-year-old bear weighed just 43 pounds and its feet were badly burned. At Frisco Creek, CPW’s wildlife technician cleaned the bear’s paws, applied salves to treat the burns and wrapped its feet. The bear was kept in a pen with concrete floors to assure the wounds would stay clean. Fortunately, the bear did not tear off the bandages as a bear rescued from a fire two years ago had done.

“He was a good patient,” said Michael Sirochman, veterinary technician and manager of the Frisco Creek facility.

The bear’s bandages were changed 16 times from mid-June to mid-July. When the paws were healed it was placed in a regular pen that provides trees to climb on and places to hide. Sirochman said the bear now weighs 110 pounds and its paws are toughened up.

“He’s now about the weight he should be for a two-year-old bear and is in good shape for going into the fall,” Sirochman said.

As a two-year old, the bear has well developed instincts to survive in the wild. No tracking devices have been placed on the bear and it is now on its own.