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
“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
“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 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
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
Still, concerns with drought conditions have led to legislative
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.”