#Denver is experiencing an ‘extreme’ #drought. What does that mean, exactly? — Denverite

From Denverite (Maggie Donahue):

Earlier this month, it snowed for the first time in 232 days, breaking a city record for days without snow. We’re now in the second half of December and have yet to see a major storm. As the weeks go by without Denver breaking a half-inch of monthly precipitation, we’re starting to see more talk about drought — its causes, severity and long-term implications.

In early December, Denver’s drought graduated from “severe” to “extreme” on the U.S. Drought Monitor, a national service that tracks drought conditions across the country. What does an “extreme” drought look like? What does it mean for people living in Denver? And at what stage of a drought does Denver Water decide to implement water-use restrictions?

We talked to some climate and water experts to find out how they categorize droughts, how concerned we should be about this one, and what it means for people living in Denver. Here’s what they told us.

Denver is in a drought. What does that mean, exactly?

Drought is defined (pretty vaguely) as an extended period of relatively low precipitation in an area. But there’s a lot more that goes into how local and national organizations categorize drought.

“When we think about drought, drought is really multifaceted,” said Peter Goble, a service climatologist for the Colorado Climate Center, a state office that assesses decades of drought-related records gathered at stations across Colorado.

There are several different kinds of drought.

“You could be talking about just simply a meteorological drought, which is probably the most simple definition of, ‘It’s raining a lot less than normal.’ Or, ‘It’s a lot warmer than normal, and we’re losing water more quickly,’” Goble said. “Oftentimes, when people think about drought around here, we think hydrological drought, which is, ‘What’s the state of our water resources? What do our reservoirs look like?’”

There’s also agricultural drought, which is a reflection of a drought’s impact on agriculture in a region, and socioeconomic drought, which is when drought impacts the exchange of goods and services in a region, like if ski towns suffer from reduced tourism because of low snowpack.

On Dec. 16, the National Weather Service reported that since July 1, Denver has been the warmest and driest it’s been on record.

“When we see statistics like that, we kind of have to recognize that as a meteorological drought,” Goble said.

That categorization, he said, reflects the breadth of the drought: how many sectors are affected, and how widespread its impact is. The U.S. Drought Monitor, meanwhile, reflects how severe the drought itself is…

As of Dec. 2, Denver Country is in “extreme drought”. In extreme drought, the evidence put us in the third to fifth percentile of drought severity in Denver County’s history…

Colorado Drought Monitor map December 21, 2021.

“If you look at a time series graph of drought in Colorado, you have basically been in and out of drought in Colorado since almost 2000,” Simeral said.

He said that’s in large part due to low snowpack and warmer temperatures than normal, which all leads to premature melting of the snowpack in the mountains.

Still, Denver is in a period of concerningly low rainfall.

“Looking at the autumn, the October through November period and the September through November period of two and three month periods were the driest on record for Denver County,” Simeral said.

Goble said a huge part of the deficit is that we haven’t had the “right ingredients” to produce the big storms.

“We’ve seen an anomalous amount of high pressure atmospheric conditions. When we’re under a high pressure system, that’s when air is calm and generally sinking rather than rising. And that’s not conducive to producing moisture,” Goble said…

What does this drought actually mean for me as a Denverite?
Drought categorizations mean different things for different states. According to the Drought Monitor, in Colorado, a D3 (Extreme Drought) categorization can mean:

  • Worsened pasture conditions
  • Dying city landscapes
  • Large fires
  • Recreational activities like rafting, fishing, hunting and skiing are reduced, and fish kills occur
  • Notable insect infestation, particularly grasshoppers
  • Reservoirs extremely low; water restrictions implemented; water temperature increases
  • However, not all of these conditions necessarily apply in Denver County, especially because our water supply comes from outside of the city.

    “Calling this an extreme drought for the Denver area, even if it’s the driest that we’ve been on record over the last six months or so, during the winter when we don’t really see the impacts, it can be confusing from a communication and public relations-type standpoint,” Goble said.

    Simeral said the drought might impact recreation, like the ski season and rafting outfitters. It can have ecological impacts. Warm waters can lead to higher mortality in trout populations, which further impacts fly-fishers. Extreme drought may negatively impact agriculture in the plains.

    “In terms of actual impacts on the ground in Denver itself, I don’t think you’re going to really see a whole lot in terms of what somebody is going to feel in their day-to-day life,” Simeral said.

    Most of the water we use doesn’t come from Denver County itself. Denver Water services about 1.5 million people in the Denver area. Its collection system spans thousands of miles, and includes 12 to 20 reservoirs fed mostly by snowpack in the mountains, which have seen more precipitation than Denver. For now, the reservoirs Denver depends on for water supplies are in decent shape (for example, Simeral said, Dillon reservoir is 78% full at the moment)…

    How you can help.

    “I do like to say, it’s always good to use water wisely,” Goble said. He says the summer is when people can make the most difference. “Where most people could save a lot more is outdoor watering type usage.”

    Still, Hartman says there are small things you can do in the winter and year round that make a collective difference.

    “Just turn the faucet off when you’re using it, when you’re brushing your teeth and shaving,” Hartman said.

    He said you can also check for leaks and replace older toilets with ones that use less water.

    “These are really no-brainer behavior changes that people can make, that if made across a lot of people saves a lot of water,” he said. “Even though it doesn’t sound very interesting or sexy, simple things like that are really important.”

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