The Crestone Eagle, May 2006:

Drought continues: fire danger rises as snow pack melts

by Keno

The drought that has plagued the Crestone area and southern Colorado appears to be worsening, with long term forecasts showing nothing for us to be encouraged about as far as any above normal precipitation heading our way anytime soon.

Even along the Front Range, where precip has also been below average, the dry conditions are already starting to take toll. There have been numerous reports of firefighters from different fire districts along the Front Range battling several wildfires in the last few weeks alone. Warnings are already being given for the southern part of our State that this fire season could be as bad or even worst as what was experienced in 2002.

The latest reports coming from Colorado State’s Division of Water Resources, Division 3 office in Alamosa, say that our snow pack isn’t good news for this area, as the Sangre de Cristo mountains snow pack is not only below normal. To date it is the lowest it has ever been.

The Pacific Ocean La Niña effects we’ve been experiencing this year have split the state in half—at about highway US-50, according to Water engineer Pat McDermott. South of US-50 we’ve had drought conditions; north, it’s much wetter.

From the most recent reports of Colorado’s SNOTEL Snow/Precipitation Update, of the eight basins in the state, our south-central upper Rio Grande is the driest, with basin-wide snow-water equivalent at only 62% of the norm. Some areas in this basin alone are far worse off than others. The Medano Pass site at 9,600 ft, just east of the Great Sand Dunes, was as of April 17 at 0% of the average, with the Upper Rio Grande site at 7% of the norm. The Wolf Creek Summit and Cumbres Trestle sites are 71% of average, thanks mainly to heavy snows that finally fell there from March 10 thru 13, with over 53” of snow reported at Wolf Creek in those days alone.

Looking at Upper Rio Grande Basin Snowpack Time Series Summary as of April 17, (which goes back to 2003) so far this year is by far the driest (see chart). On the east side of the Valley, our mountains have been hit the hardest. “The spring runoff this season from the mountains around the Crestone area will be of the lowest proportion ever,” says McDermott. Back in 2002, people were calling that snow season and its runoff a one in one hundred year event, one that many water officials believed would not be see again in our lifetimes. After this past winter, according to McDermott, this year’s runoff will be worse than what we saw in ’02.

Our State meanwhile is once again involved in an ambitious, multi-state cloud-seeding plan that is hoped to boost mountain snow pack, which will potentially make available billions of gallons of new water. The cost of the plan isn’t at all clear, and the whole idea has plenty of critics.

The cloud seeding would be done in the northern half of the state, along the Colorado River, where they did see a healthy snow pack this past winter. The proposal has broad support among water managers of seven drought-plagued Western states that rely on the Colorado River. States such as California, Arizona and Nevada would pay water utilities in Colorado to expand existing cloud-seeding operations, or create new ones.

Serious questions remain however, about whether cloud seeding—the practice of shooting silver iodide particles into winter clouds—really produces more water on the ground and if it leaves other areas, especially to the south and east, drier than normal.

So does cloud seeding north of here really reduce the amount of snow that falls in our mountains? Does seeding clouds really produce more precip to the mountains below? “The jury is still out,” claims local scientist Jim Erdman, who helped in compiling some data for this article.

There are only two things that are certain about this drought. It is ongoing, and conditions are not improving. Everybody in the Crestone area needs to be aware that the fire danger at this time is critical and everyone should take steps now, if they haven’t done so already, to make sure that the area around their homes is as fire resistant as possible. Be very careful when dealing with anything ranging from campfires to cooking outdoors. Area wells going dry may continue to be a problem. so it is good to be conservative in water usage.