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Record Warmth Starts To Tip Colorado’s Scales Toward Drought

National Drought Mitigation Center

All the dry and warm weather Coloradans have been enjoying doesn’t come without a cost. The most recent U.S. Drought Monitor shows Colorado’s Western Slope has slipped a bit further into drought conditions, now more than half the state’s land area is classified as being in moderate drought.

Weather in January and February 2015 is mostly to blame, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture snowpack surveyist Brian Domonkos. Drought Monitor findings aren’t explicitly tied to snowpack levels, but paltry snowfall and record-breaking high temperatures have certainly influenced the new designation.

“The fact that January in the mountains of Colorado was so poor in terms of snowpack accumulation, it hurt us,” Domonkos says.

This January was the state’s driest in almost three decades, bringing a little more than an inch of snow to Colorado’s mountains, the lowest amount since 1986. February hasn’t been that much better. That’s caused snowpack levels to slip.

As of February 19 the statewide snowpack is at 77 percent of normal. The South Platte is the only river basin in the state with average snowpack right now. Every other basin is below average, with the hardest hit areas in the state’s southwest corner. It’ll take 160 percent of average snowfall to reach a normal peak, which usually happens in the first half of April. But Domonkos says it has happened before.

“We’ve seen values this low and then we’ve actually had the remainder of the winter be relatively bountiful in terms of snowfall and we’ve been able to make it back to normal,” Domonkos says.

Water managers are still banking on wet weather in March and April, which typically bring the highest snowfall to the mountains. One bright spot in the winter outlook is the status of the state’s reservoirs. Most are full going into the 2015 irrigation season.

As KUNC’s managing editor and reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I edit and produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.
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