Drought continues in 2004

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Apr 292004
 
Authors: Christiana Nelson

It has been in Colorado for four years.

Since 1999, a drought in Colorado has been slowly killing

vegetation, prompting restrictions and drying out tourism – and

experts say it is not going away anytime soon.

“Simply stated, we’re a long way from any ocean, and there are

more ways for moisture not to get here than there are ways to reach

us,” said Nolan Doesken, a climatologist at the Colorado Climate

Center at CSU.

To date, Colorado precipitation totals are about 75 percent

below normal, reaching only 0.58 inches compared to an average of

2.28 inches, said Paul Potter, a meteorologist at Skyview Weather,

a service based in Castle Rock.

The Colorado Climate Center defines drought as “a period of

insufficient snow pack and reservoir storage to provide adequate

water to urban and rural areas.”

And while the recent precipitation in the state has improved dry

conditions in several areas, Colorado’s drought situation remains a

problem.

“Some parts of the state were helped quite a bit, such as the

Southeast,” said Roger Pielke, state climatologist and a professor

of atmospheric science. “However, snow pack, which much of the

state relies on for water resources, remains below average.”

Researchers say that despite months of expected precipitation

ahead, it is unlikely the drought problem will be resolved this

year.

“Spring, March through early June, is the best time of the year

around here to recover from drought, as cloudy, cool weather can

last for days and moisture can soak into the soil,” Doesken said.

“Once it’s summer, warm temperatures and high evaporation rates

make it really hard to catch up.”

Despite the spring season’s moisture contributions, record low

reservoir, stream flow and soil moisture levels indicate that

Colorado may remain in a severe drought for years.

“Unless we have a very unusual wet period for the rest of the

year, which is highly unlikely based on past years, we will require

several years to catch up if we have average and above-average

precipitation,” Pielke said.

Even if Colorado acquires the necessary precipitation, Jim

Wirshborn, a meteorologist for DayWeather, Inc., a meteorological

center in Fort Collins, said droughts often occur in cycles, and it

is difficult to determine when a drought actually ends.

“In drought years there are often isolated instances of big

rains or snows, like the Big Thompson event in 1976, but overall

you have to go several months in a row before you can be sure the

cycle is changing,” he said.

Throughout history, Colorado drought cycles have lasted 10 years

or longer, according to the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

Wirshborn said that while Colorado is only expected to have 19

days of weather reaching 90 degrees or higher in Fort Collins, in

the past five years the area has had more than 40 days of

temperatures exceeding 90 degrees, showing that temperature are on

the rise.

“The average temperatures rise quickly during the first part of

May and so snow melt is starting already in the mountains,”

Wirshborn said. “At this point in the water season there is little

hope of catching the numbers up to normal.”

Extended drought cycles are largely due to Colorado’s natural

environment, which narrowly escapes classification as a desert

climate.

Potter said a desert climate is classified as any area receiving

less than 10 inches of rainfall annually. In an average year, the

rainfall for Denver totals 15.81 inches.

Thus, losing 37 percent of annual rainfall measures would make

Colorado a desert state, and while some of the wettest months are

still to come, Colorado is 75 percent below the expected

precipitation average for 2004.

The combination of Colorado’s climate and a growing urban

population, which increases water demand, creates a perfect

combination for drought, Pielke said.

“We live in a semi-arid state,” he said. “Drought is very much

normal. However, with the growing population, there is more

competition for water than in the past.”

Yet an increased population does not directly correlate to water

problems, Doesken said.

“More people doesn’t necessarily mean less water,” Doesken said.

“It all depends on how we choose to use the water that we

have.”

Still, concerns with drought conditions have led to legislative

action.

Due to the severe drought potential in Colorado and as a direct

response to a severe drought in 1977, the state developed the

Colorado Drought Mitigation and Response Plan to monitor, assess,

ease and respond to drought problems.

A Water Availability Task Force implements the plan’s

components, and if conditions appear to be deteriorating, it will

notify the governor, who will enact a specialized Impact Task Force

to determine the drought’s economic and environmental impacts.

Colorado’s state government action indicates that the state

expects to be dealing with drought issues in the future, and

Doesken said the changes are far from over.

“There will be some interesting decisions to be made in the

years ahead,” Doesken said. “And it behooves us all to learn as

much as we can about water in Colorado so that we make decisions

that make sense for the long term.”

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