Governor to activate drought plan for 40 Colorado counties

Colorado’s drought map. One-third of the state is in extreme drought (D3). Courtesy Natural Resources Conservation Services, US Department of Agriculture, June 16, 2020.

Gov. Jared Polis on Tuesday activated the state’s drought plan for 40 of Colorado’s 64 counties, in response to a warmer-than-average spring and far less precipitation than normal.

It comes just one year after a wetter-than-average 2019 when Colorado, for the first time since tracking began 20 years ago, was completely out of drought.

The “why” comes from the Water Availability Task Force, which Tuesday morning took a look at drought conditions for the state.

The good snowfall didn’t happen in the past winter for most parts of the state, and certain weather conditions have put much of the state into a “flash drought” situation, according to Becky Bolinger of the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University. May precipitation, both rainfall and snow, was less than half of normal, although June has so far trended at normal levels, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

A flash drought, Bolinger explained, is a new term that refers to a drought that takes place much more rapidly than a regular drought. In a flash drought, she said, “you’re losing more moisture from the ground than normal,” due to the high winds, low humidity, high temperatures and lack of rain or snowpack. The state was already in drought when the flash drought started, she added.

That’s bad news for farmers and for the environment, too. Vegetation around the state is more stressed as a result of the flash drought, Bolinger explained.

Even northeastern Colorado, which normally is the wettest part of the state, is seeing signs of that stress, according to Climate Center maps.

On the Western Slope, at the Olathe measuring station, evaporative losses have been in record territory for the entire growing season.

The outlook for the next three months isn’t any better, with expected higher-than-average temperatures and lower-than-average rainfall. Some areas won’t recover precipitation deficits in this water year even with the usual summer monsoons, Bolinger said, such as in southeastern Colorado, where precipitation is 40% below normal.

A water year runs from October 1 to September 30.

Preliminary expectations for the July monsoons show strong rainfall for Arizona, but not so much for Colorado, Bolinger explained.

Brian Domonosko of NRCS said the snowpack is gone for most of the state. Only in the Colorado River basin is reservoir storage improving, Domonosko said. Reservoir levels are depleting in most of the state, particularly in the southern part of the state, which includes the Arkansas River, and the San Luis Valley, which is fed by the Upper Rio Grande River. That also includes the Gunnison River basin and the southwestern area served by the Dolores, San Juan, Animas and San Miguel rivers.

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