Colorado eyes activating drought response plan


Front Range cities such as Denver have good supplies in reservoirs this year. Strontia Springs is one of Denver Water’s storage facilities.

Program would aid hard-hit southern portions of the state

By Jerd Smith, Water Education Colorado

Colorado state officials will decide within the next 10 days whether to activate a drought response plan, a move designed to help farmers and towns in the ultra-dry southeastern and southwestern portions of the state.

“The whole point of a drought plan is to make it hurt less,” said Taryn Finnessey, senior climate change specialist for the state. Her remarks came Thursday at a meeting of the state’s Water Availability Task Force in Denver.

If the plan is activated, Finnessey said it would offer some concrete relief to communities and farmers who are already experiencing serious drought conditions, helping facilitate grants, and in some instances, insurance payments to those who are being harmed by the dry conditions.

In the Rio Grande Basin, for instance, in southern Colorado, snowpack stands at just 30 percent of normal. Forecasted streamflows, critical indicators for drinking water supplies for cities and farm irrigation, are very low as well, tracking at less than 50 percent of normal in some areas, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the federal agency responsible for monitoring those resources.

The southwestern portion of the state, the San Juan and Dolores Basins are so dry that they have been given the U.S. Drought Monitor’s most alarming label: “exceptional drought.” Also in dire straits is the southeastern portion of the Arkansas River Basin It is now designated as being in “extreme drought,” the second most severe category.

“It’s pretty hard to look at some of these numbers,” said Brian Dokonos, snow survey supervisor for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Denver.

As in years past, drought is hitting the state unevenly. Statewide snowpack is at 71 percent of average, with areas such as the South Platte Basin, which covers most of the Front Range from the metro area north to the Wyoming border, registering 93 percent of average.

That is in sharp contrast to areas such as the San Miguel and the Gunnison Basin. In the San Miguel, snowpack stood at 32 percent of average late this week, with streamflows forecast at less than 50 percent of average. In the Gunnison, snowpack stood at 54 percent of average, with streamflows projected at 50 percent to 60 percent of average.

Among those dry Western Slope communities asking that the state activate the plan was the City of Aspen, which has little storage and which therefore must rely on taking water directly from streams to supply its water system. The stability of those kinds of systems comes under threat when streamflows drop too low, as they may do this summer.

“We would support some kind of drought declaration,” said Margaret Medellin, utilities portfolio manager for Aspen. She said the staff had been considering asking the city council to implement stage 1 drought restrictions for the summer, a move designed to help reduce any stress on the system. The voluntary restrictions, if enacted, would include asking citizens to limit lawn watering to every other day, among other things. But Friday’s snow has pushed them back into a monitoring mode, she said.

With the northern portion of the state relatively moist, and water in storage reservoirs relatively high, Front Range city officials, including Denver and Thornton, said they would likely not implement water restrictions May 1, when the summer lawn season launches.

The state last activated a drought response plan in 2011 and it remained in force through 2014, Finnessey said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the basins labeled as being in exceptional drought. They are the San Juan/Dolores basins.

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