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After three dry months, recent rains have negligible effect on drought

Dennis Webb

Western Colorado’s drought has become so extreme that it would take 16 to 20 inches of precipitation over the next half year to end it, a National Weather Service hydrologist says.

To put that in perspective, Glenwood’s precipitation this year was 2.8 inches through July, compared to 10.44 inches on average, said Brian Avery of the National Weather Service in Grand Junction.

Rain clouds have taken much of the summer off. From April 26 through July 19, no measurable precipitation fell in Glenwood Springs.

“That’s a pretty long, dry period,” said Avery.

That Glenwood and Colorado have been dry is hardly news. What is news is what has happened beginning in late July. The state’s monsoon season, which was eagerly anticipated this year because of the current drought, has made a much-welcome appearance.

Given to the historic nature of the drought, the recent moisture doesn’t amount to much. But it’s moisture, nonetheless.

“It’s an end to the never-ending spiral of bad news,” said Peter Roessmann, education specialist for the Colorado River Water Conservation District, based in Glenwood Springs.

“It is providing some relief in the sense that people aren’t having to water their lawns as much, and things are greening up a bit,” Roessmann said of the rains.

Still, Roessmann and other area water-watchers warn that it’s going to take a lot of moisture – mostly in the form of snow, not rain – to provide true drought relief.

“It’s going to take us a while to dig out of the hole that Mother Nature put us into,” said Roessmann.

Said Avery, “Every month this year has been below-normal precipitation” in Glenwood Springs.

Glenwood’s precipitation is recorded at KMTS Radio in the Roaring Fork Marketplace.

Of the 0.45 inches of rain that fell on Glenwood in July, most came in one day at the end of the month, as the monsoons hit, said Avery. So far in August, 0.4 inches of rain have fallen. That’s ahead of pace for August, but drier weather is forecast for the next several days, before another monsoonal burst arrives, Avery said.

A monsoon season typically lasts four to six weeks, with rain coming and going during that time. Monsoons can last all the way through October during a wet year, he said.

He said this year’s monsoon season has been fairly weak so far, although the last week brought a lot of moisture, particularly at higher elevations.

“Every bit of water helps, but it’s certainly not enough to break the drought,” he said.

You might not guess it, but Colorado has entered an El Nino weather pattern, typified by warmer temperatures that bring higher moisture. Unfortunately, it’s a weak El Nino, said Avery, with temperature rises of just a degree or two.

“So it hasn’t helped the monsoon much,” he said.

John Sikora, assistant division engineer for Colorado Water Resources Division 5 in Glenwood Springs, finds the talk of a weak El Nino disheartening. It means the arrival of close-to-average precipitation, he said.

“Average is not good enough now,” he said.

“We do have a good moisture pattern going right now, which is always positive. It (precipitation) is just so far down for the year.”

The rains are achieving some short-term good, he said.

“I think it helps saturate the ground. You don’t tend to see a lot of runoff. But moisture is good, even if it’s sitting in the soil and not in the creeks.”

But rain has been localized rather than regional, said Sikora.

“You need a regional rain that will really impact river levels,” he said.

Better yet, he said, a winter of heavy snow is needed, followed by a spring in which the snowpack isn’t robbed by high, evaporating winds.

A few heavy winters wouldn’t hurt. Roessmann said it’s going to take a few years for some Western Slope reservoirs to refill.

He said recent rains provided at least some relief to ranchers and farmers. But the relief can be minimal.

All the recent rains around the Williams Fork Reservoir near Kremmling provided enough water for one day’s release to Grand Valley users, he said.

“If it gets really warm and hot after this, it could still dry things up very quickly,” he said.

Besides bringing rain, the recent monsoon storms provided the added benefit of higher humidity, more cloud cover and cooler temperatures, which Roessmann said means less need for watering.

It also makes tinder-dry forests a little less likely to explode in flame.

Ron Biggers, fire protection analyst for the Glenwood Springs Fire Department, said the cloud cover helps, but conditions can change quickly if clear skies return, humidity drops and a drying breeze shows up.

Just as winter snows are needed to recharge the state’s water supplies, Biggers believes the vegetation’s moisture levels won’t improve significantly until good winter snows arrive.

One benefit of the recent string of rainy days is a reduction of the wildfire danger posed by a downside of the monsoonal season: lightning strikes.

If such strikes occur with only a little rain, it can be worse than having no rain at all. But when a lightning strike is followed by a few rainy days in a row, Biggers said, that significantly cuts the chances of a wildfire.


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