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Environment

As The Parched West Looks To El Niño, Colorado Is Still The Wettest

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United States Drought Monitor
Unlike other natural disasters, droughts can last for years causing billions of dollars in economic, social and environmental damage. This map is for the week of Sept. 1, 2015.

Just a small portion of Colorado is abnormally dry according the latest U.S. drought monitor.

Much of Colorado’s current moisture is a holdover from the record wet spring according to Mark Svoboda a climatologist and the Monitoring Program Area Leader for the National Drought Mitigation Center. The information is based on satellite images and ground observations especially in remote areas of Colorado, like Grand County, the largest yellow spot on the map.

“A lot of these areas where we’ve seen a lot of issues this year are in the forested mountainous areas. A lot of fire issues in Washington, Oregon and California. It’s not unusual,” he said.

Colorado continues to be the bright spot in the west, where much of the Pacific Northwest and especially California are in the worst drought seen in decades. 

“We haven’t seen a drought like this in California in 40 years. We’re living in a drought that would rival any in the last century plus another decade. Historically, you don’t see these kinds of droughts come around and then last for several years. That’s what makes it unique it’s not only the intensity, but also the duration,” Svoboda said.null

Unlike other natural disasters, droughts can last for years causing billions of dollars in economic, social and environmental damage.

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Credit United State Drought Monitor
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United State Drought Monitor
This graph shows beginning in 2000 how much of Colorado was in drought. Th yellow portion does not indicate drought, just areas that are 'abnormally dry.'

Why El Niño Won’t Fix the Drought

Warmer oceanic sea surface temperatures, which characterize the natural phenomenon of El Niño, will release more moisture into the atmosphere, which rises into the jet stream and “is our conveyer belt of storm tracks and activity,” he said.

Forecasters expect a warmer winter in the central to northern Rockies and up into the Pacific Northwest, “so the drought could actually intensify up in the Pacific Northwest,” Svobota said.

California remains the wild card.

“Southern California certainly with the strong El Niño the odds are tilted in favor of being wetter, but that doesn’t mean that will push all the way up to the Sierra Nevada where we need big snows to fill in the reservoirs and streams.”

Because of the duration and severity of the drought, Svobota thinks it will take years of at least average snowpacks to bring the state back to a comfortable water storage position.

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Credit United States Drought Monitor
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United States Drought Monitor
Colorado was declared 'drought free' in June, 2015. The rest of the west has gotten worse.

“[It all depends on] where that [El Niño] pattern sets up. Where does it come on shore in California? And that remains to be seen.”

Climatologists have forecast that the El Niño may stick around through spring of 2016. But the key is what form the moisture takes.

“The perception is going to be El Niño is here, the drought is over,” Svobota said. “It takes more than that to recover. We want to see it in the form of snow, not rain. We want big snows that melt out slowly next summer that will help them sustain and start the recovery process. This winter is going to be really really critical.”

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