The Western Slope has been in a drought for the better part of two years. The primary reason for that is a lack of snow in the mountains. Recently, however, we have an active weather pattern. This active weather pattern has helped to deposit some much needed snowfall across Western Colorado's higher terrain.
"If we continue to get snowfall, and build that snow pack up for the rest of the year, that could improve slightly. But we dug ourselves a pretty deep hole, staring last spring," says Aldis Strautins, Service Hydrologist at the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Grand Junction.
The current state of the snow pack across Colorado is well below nomral. On a whole, we are 71% of average. The southern river basins have the most snow, at near 85% of normal. The central basins have the least, at 68% of normal. The northern basins are generally between those two ends of the spectrum.
Those number may shock you because we had such a cold January in the Grand Valley, with snow on the ground through much of the month. That was not reflective of the weather in western Colorado's high country. The high terrain saw both warmer than normal, and drier than normal weather conditions. And with the Western Slope being more than halfway through the snow accumulation year, the outlook is not looking promising.
"Looking out at some of the climate outlooks, they're projecting higher probabilities of below normal precipitation, through the rest of the spring and into the summer months. And higher probability of above normal temps through that time period," says Strautins.
With drier, and warmer than normal weather looking likely as we head into spring, the wildfire risk may be much higher than usual. Strautins says the worst case scenario for drought is a high fire danger for a lot longer time period.
Along with the likelihood of wildfire, there will be less water for residents of the Grand Valley to use come summer time. The Ute Water Conservancy District is already taking precautions for the upcoming change is seasons.
"We've taken a very proactive role in aggressively getting the message out that one, we are still in stage one drought. And two, depending on our snow pack this spring we could possibly go into a stage two drought… Which is mandatory water restrictions," says Joseph Burtard, of Ute Water Conservancy District.
The difference between stage one and stage two drought is voluntary versus mandatory water restrictions. If a stage two drought is implemented everybody will need to do their part to conserve water usage and adhere to the imposed limitations.
"The only policing method we have, at this point, to enforce mandatory water restrictions is our rate structure. So our current rate structure will go to the way side, and we will implement a drought rate which will be very aggressive after the minimum usage," says Burtard.
As of now, however, nothing is set in stone. Ute Water's main reservoirs on the Grand Mesa, Jerry Creek number one and number two, are at 100% capacity. With that being said, if the snow pack doesn't improve, and fast, the drought will get worse, the wildfire potential this summer will be very high, and water will become a more valued commodity than it already is.