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WATER LINES: Do recent rains mean the end of the drought?

Coming back to Grand Junction after a vacation last week, I saw that the river was way up and so was my lawn — despite a malfunctioning sprinkler system. It had been raining, a lot, in western Colorado.

After resetting my (now working) sprinkler system to account for cooler, wetter conditions, I began sifting through the latest climate data to see how my newly green backyard fit into the bigger picture.

According to Western Water Assessment at CU-Boulder, the answer is that "short-term drought conditions have eased considerably over the region after a wet July, with lesser improvements in long-term drought conditions."

Over the past month, it rained more than usual across most of Colorado, Utah and the rest of the Southwest. But it was so dry in June and over the winter that precipitation totals for the 2013 water year, which started in October of 2012, are still well below average for most of the same region. The Colorado River headwaters area is one of the few exceptions.

The longer-term picture is reflected in reservoir storage levels. The Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) reports that end-of-July reservoir levels in Colorado averaged 47% of capacity, which is 70% of average — down from 73% of average at the same time in 2012. Blue Mesa Reservoir, the largest in Colorado, was at 46% of capacity on Aug. 11.

Downstream, Lake Powell is under half full, and the Bureau of Reclamation reports that unregulated inflows to the lake are predicted to be just 41% of average for the 2013 water year. The bureau also reported a slightly more than 50% chance that Lake Powell will fall enough to trigger a reduction in releases to Lake Mead in 2014, under an agreement negotiated between the states that share the Colorado River.

So while this summer's monsoon rains are bringing much-needed relief for thirsty plants, streams and people, they don't spell an end to the long-term management challenges faced by our state and the Colorado River Basin as a whole, both of which are looking at a future where projected water demands exceed projected supplies.

For more information, you can check out:

• Western Water Assessment's latest climate information at http://wwa.colorado.edu/ — just scroll down to "Intermountain West Climate Dashboard" in the left-hand column.

• The Colorado Water Conservation Board's drought information portal houses NRCS data on reservoirs, the US Drought Monitor and information on drought response measures around the state: http://www.coh2o.co/

• The US Bureau of Reclamation provides information on current hydrology, reservoir levels and operations for the Upper Colorado River Basin at http://www.usbr.gov/uc/water/crsp/cs/gcd.html.

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 http://www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter.

Hannah Holm is coordinator of the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University.