Peter Shelton

Drought Happens

Posted in Watch columns, Weather & Climate by pshelton on April 18, 2013

Two weeks ago I listened in on an “open media call” regarding Colorado’s continuing drought.

It was hosted by Western Resource Advocates, an environmental law and policy non-profit with headquarters in Boulder and offices across the Southwest. As it happened, the call coincided with announcements by two Front Range cities, Louisville and Lafayette, that they were initiating water restrictions in their communities.

Bart Miller, WRA’s Water Program Director made an intriguing comparison between the years 2002-2003 and our present drought situation.

“2002 was probably the driest year in [Colorado] history,” he said. “But in 2003, the state was saved by the largest snowstorm in Colorado history.”

I remember that storm. It was late in the season. It didn’t affect us much on the Western Slope, but it blasted the Front Range with an upslope monster.

My son-in-law, Mike, remembers it perfectly. He was trapped for days at Eldora ski area when avalanches closed the road. He was working there, in the finance department, and slept in his car and on the cafeteria floor with hundreds of other people, eating the last of the potato chips and bottled water, before crews finally busted through the walls of snow.

That storm dumped seven feet of snow east of the Continental Divide in one fell swoop. And averted a consecutive-year drought disaster.

Our very dry year last year was analogous, statistically, to 2002. And so far 2013 is shaping up to be a double whammy. Is there hope? Could one big storm this spring turn things around? “We would need 8 to 12 feet of snow,” Miller said.

“April 1 is typically when you assume peak snowpack,” Miller told the media call. The April 1 snow-water-equivalent is semi-grim: 79 percent of average statewide. “Soil moisture is dry,” Miller added. “Soil temperatures are high.”

(By April 15, even with the recent stormy weather, Snotel sites around the state show that percentage declining; it’s 77 percent of average now.)

“The reservoirs are not full,” Miller went on. They are at 71 percent of average statewide, 40 percent of capacity. “And many of them are not expected to fill.”

WRA’s Water Policy Director, Drew Beckwith came next on the speakerphone. He talked in more general terms about what we can do.

“Drought happens in the West,” he said. “It will happen again. And with climate change, it will become more frequent and more severe. Drought affects fish, forests, families, birds, boaters, farmers . . .” In short, everybody.

“Watering restrictions are necessary and appropriate,” he said. “Polls taken following the 2002 drought showed that people are OK with restrictions. (Last year we didn’t need restrictions because the reservoirs were brimming following a wet 2011.)

“Long-term conservation programs will help us survive future droughts,” he said. “If we use less, if we get more efficient, if we reuse water, we can keep more water in storage for later.

“How about building new storage?” he asked rhetorically. “That wouldn’t appear to be the solution. We’re only at 40 percent of reservoir capacity now. We don’t need more buckets, we need more water. And,” he said, “with any new dam project, users are going to be paying off the construction debt for years.”

One important difference between 2002 and now, Bart Miller said, is that “individuals and utilities are more aware of drought. In 2002, they didn’t respond until May or later.” Remember the photos of Denverites painting their lawns green? “Now restrictions are in place a couple of months earlier. Denver Water and other utilities have taken this to heart.”

Ridgway is keeping a close eye on its water supplies. Public Works Director Joanne Fagan told the town council last week that with March precipitation at about 50 percent of normal, “I’m worried there will be water as much as whether our water will be called out.” Last summer, two of Ridgway’s three water sources were “called” by senior rights holders. “I’m as worried about how much water is in the watershed more than whether or not we own it.”

Rather than impose mandatory restrictions (“Shower with a friend,” someone on council joked.), Fagan said she would like to see the town do more community outreach, “encourage people to use less. Outside water is the low-hanging fruit.” To that end, she said, the town would be “a little less generous in its park watering, to set an example: have it be green and welcoming, but not too green and not too wet.”

The town already has voluntary, three-day-a-week watering restrictions. “What hours does the resolution say?” asked Mayor John Clark.

“No watering between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.,” Fagan answered.

“The sun’s been up for five hours at 10 o’clock! It’s this high at 4! It’s the hottest part of the day.”

Council instructed staff to change the resolution to discourage watering between the hours of 9 a.m. and 6 p.m.

“The only good news is,” Fagan said, “thanks to the cool weather, it looks like the runoff will start a little later. We’re keeping an eye on it.”

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