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Western Slope water woes likely to continue

The Colorado River in Rifle.
The Colorado River flows through Rifle on Saturday.

Garfield County is on track to endure one of its worst droughts since 2002, according to a National Weather Service meteorologist.

“Right now it’s quite a bit worse than it even normally is these days,” said Rich Tinker, a drought expert with the Climate Prediction Center in Maryland on Friday. “Even if you just look at Colorado, probably you’ve got about three-quarters of the state in either our highest category or our next highest.”

What Tinker’s referring to is the U.S. drought monitor, a weekly map that shows exactly where the country’s most intensely affected areas of dryness and drought are. And based on this measure, extreme to exceptional drought conditions currently envelop the entire county.

Meanwhile, exceptional drought conditions – the highest intensity on the drought monitor – cover the majority of the rest of the Western Slope and Southwest regions of the state. To the east, the Front Range and High Plains are also threatened by either abnormally dry or moderate to severe drought conditions.

A lack of heavy snowpack in Colorado ski country this winter could lead to a vast spectrum of potential impacts. Ranchers might lose forage pasture. Reservoirs could recede. And bearing in mind the Grizzly Creek Fire this past summer in Glenwood Canyon, a drought like this is conducive to large fires, according to Tinker.

“What would be really nice would be to get a nice, heavy snowpack over the next coming winter,” Tinker said. “The odds are against it, but hopefully things will turn out differently.”

A stray branch pokes out of the Colorado River in Rifle on Saturday.

A wet winter, however, is a key factor here, Tinker noted. If the winter does see higher levels of moisture, they’ll cause a decent enough undergrowth which could later dry out by next spring and summer.

“This is exactly what you need to start fires,” Tinker said.

But, Jim Pokrandt, director of community affairs for the Colorado River District in Glenwood Springs, said the currently dry soils of the Western Slope could pose a threat to the efficacy of a good snowpack altogether.

The same thing happened this past year. The Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys welcomed an average to slightly above average snowpack. The snow, however, fell on dry soils, causing a domino effect on the ensuing spring and summer seasons.

“What it means is, we’re going into this snowpack season with dry soils once again,” Pokrandt explained. “The problem with dry soils is that they have a degrading effect on next spring’s runoff.”

There is, however, another factor that could make or break next year’s soil conditions: La Nina.

Pokrandt said the entire country this year falls under this weather pattern, meaning time will only tell whether the valley gets hit with a decent amount of snow this coming winter season. Typically, places like Wyoming, Utah and mostly northern Colorado reap the benefits of a precipitation-heavy La Nina.

On the flipside, La Nina is a phenomena that typically leaves parts of southwest Colorado, New Mexico and California high and dry, according to Pokrandt. It’s sibling weather pattern, El Nino, means dryer conditions in the northern part of the Rockies.

“Certainly, a really healthy snowpack is going to help mitigate how the snow runs off,” Pokrandt said. “If we have a good winter, plus moisture in April and May, and not with the deficits that we’ve seen? Let’s hope that La Nina treats this area well and we can mitigate poor soil moisture.”

In other words, moisture needs to remain constant. If lush undergrowth occurs following snowmelt, that’s a good thing. If monsoons neglect to follow, everything basically turns to kindling – exactly what happened this past year.

“Monsoons were a no show. All our forests were tinderboxes,” Pokrandt said. (And) all it takes is a spark from maybe a chain dragging along the highway. Somebody carelessly and thoughtlessly tosses a cigarette out the window or lightning strikes. Or what’s even more grieving is careless campers and their campfires.”

A good monsoon season – between July and August – will depend on what happens above the Gulf, said Pokrandt.

“We need a high-pressure system to set up over to the Southwest, closer to Texas,” he said. “If a high-pressure system doesn’t set up in the proper place, then we’re not getting that moisture sweeping up from the right locations.”

SNOWPACK’S A PUNCH

Here is some good news from Russell Cabe, retail and rental manager at Sunlight Ski & Bike Shop in Glenwood Springs: The world-class ski and snowboard runs interspersed throughout the valley are somewhat immune to La Nina’s wrath – or lack thereof.

“Usually, honestly, even if it is not an ideal amount of snowfall in the season, between snowmaking and good grooming, you can still have a fun year,” he said. “Unless it’s really uncommonly low snowfall, it usually isn’t that big of an effect.”

Cabe, who’s been skiing and snowboarding this area on and off since 1992, said the past 7-8 years, in fact, have been average or better as far as “fresh pow” is concerned. When asked, he couldn’t quite remember the last year when the slopes were that exceedingly bad – maybe a few bad days here and there, at most.

“People may not get as juiced as they would be on more powder days,” he said.

As for the good days?

“You can feel the joy on the mountain,” he said. “You can hear people yelling all over the mountain because they’re going to the powder stashes they love, they’re hitting the spots that they love to be at. You see how people treat each other at the bottom and the lift line… There’s just kind of a joy all around the mountain when the conditions are like that.”

rerku@postindependent.com