Despite rain and snow, drought conditions persist in Colorado

Claire Cleveland

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Drought in the Southwest.Julia Volk / Pexels

By Claire Cleveland / NewsBreak

(Denver, Colo.) Rain showers pushed through metro Denver Tuesday, adding to the season’s already above-average precipitation, but it’s not enough to counteract the state’s drought.

According to a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the drought from 2020-2021 plaguing Colorado and the Southwest has been exceptional. The drought caused massive water shortages, socioeconomic costs, such as losses in agriculture and wildfire damage, and emergency declarations. It led to the first-ever water delivery shortage in the states that share the Colorado River, the most important river basin in the region.

Late last year, Colorado saw minimal snow, but those numbers have risen to above-average totals since January. Unseasonably warm temperatures last fall and early winter set a record as the second warmest October through January since 2018.

The report concludes human caused climate change is intensifying the 20-year drought plaguing the Southwest and that without “stringent” climate mitigation, the region will continue to warm.

Drought conditions are a driver of wildfires, like the Marshall Fire that devastated Louisville and parts of Boulder County earlier this year and the more recent NCAR fire that’s still smoldering.

“At this time of year in March and April, when you get a string of a few warm and windy days before things have started to green up then it doesn’t take much to get you into a situation where you can have fires like the NCAR fire,” said State Climatologist Russ Schumacher of the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University.

Along the Front Range, the snowpack is at about 90% of normal, but officials worry about the Southeastern part of the state, Schumacher said.

“It’s very dry and windy, they have not had the rain and snow recently that we’ve had here along the Front Range,” he said. “From there down into Oklahoma and Texas, Kansas area, there's a lot of concern for fire weather.”

In a new outlook from the National Weather Service, drought conditions are likely to persist or even expand across the West due to above-average temperatures from June through August. The weather service also predicts warmer than average highs for the southwest part of the state.

As of March 15, drought extended across about 61% of the country. That’s the worst drought since 2013, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Analyzing drought depends on the timeline studied, Schumacher said. In the short term, the Front Range is OK, but the Southwest has been stuck in a persistent drought longer.

“That’s not the effect of a single dry winter,” Schumacher said. “That’s the effect of many, many dry years building up, and made worse by the fact that the climate is warming, which is because warmer air wants to suck more water out of the ground and the soil, and the rivers and reservoirs, and everything else. The big picture across the Southwest is still not very good.”

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Claire Cleveland is a Denver-based freelance writer with a background in health and science reporting. She's covered the pandemic extensively and local news in Colorado. Previously, Claire was a reporter and producer for Colorado Public Radio.

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