A snowy December was the perfect Christmas present for a parched Colorado, which ended November suffering from desiccated soils, depleted reservoirs and anxious ski resorts. A series of storms over the past few weeks made the state start to look like its proper winter self.
So the Drought of 2012 must be over, right? Not quite yet.
The Weekly Climate, Water and Drought Assessment Summary for the Upper Colorado River Basin, released by the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) on Jan. 1, notes that the water picture improved markedly in December, but the amount of water in the snowpack in western Colorado river basins is still only between about 70% and 85% of normal for this time of year.
The snowpack for the Upper Colorado River Basin as a whole (the area that drains into the Colorado River above Glenn Canyon dam) is doing better, at about 94% of average, because of higher accumulations in northeastern Utah and southwestern Wyoming river basins.
The NIDIS report also notes that as of Dec. 30, soil moisture levels were below 30% of average across all of western Colorado and eastern Utah, with an exceptionally dry area in southwestern Wyoming.
Looking more closely at the river basins that meet in Grand Junction, the Colorado River Basin snowpack in Colorado had 69% of its average water content for this time of year on Jan. 2. For some historical perspective, there's more fluffy, frozen water in the hills now than there was at the beginning of 2012, and just about the same amount as at the beginning of 2002. The picture is similar in the Gunnison Basin.
The US Drought Monitor, last updated Dec. 25, showed all of Colorado remaining in drought, with "exceptional" (that's the worst level) drought conditions persisting in southeastern Colorado and "severe" (that's second worst) drought conditions persisting in far northwestern Colorado, including much of Mesa County. That's not too surprising, considering that the National Weather Service announced that 2012 was Grand Junction's third warmest and third driest year on record.
Looking ahead, the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center forecasts that the next three months are likely to be a little warmer than average across Colorado and Utah, and both states can expect somewhat drier conditions in their southern tiers and average conditions in their northern tiers.
Zooming out, the US Seasonal Drought Outlook, released Dec. 20, shows a giant, dark brown stain spreading from Minnesota and Texas in the east to Nevada and Southern California in the west that is labeled "Persistence." This is where forecasters expect drought conditions to persist or intensify through the end of March.
So, with all this data, what's the take-home for western Colorado?
It's too early to panic about next year's water situation, given that early spring is when we typically get most of our water, and large-scale, long-range projections aren't terribly reliable for forecasting local conditions. But it's also too early to breathe sighs of relief.
This is part of a series of articles coordinated by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies in our region. To learn more about the basin roundtables and statewide water planning, and to let the roundtables know what you think, go to www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter.
Hannah Holm is coordinator of the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University.