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Colorado’s drought is at its lowest level in at least 19 years

The U.S. Drought Monitor released a report Thursday showing that just roughly eight square miles in Colorado -- or 0.01 percent of the state -- is under abnormal dryness. And that might just be from a map-drawing error.

Benj Mickel, rafting guide with Mild to Wild Rafting & Jeep Tours, hits the rapids in the Durango Whitewater Park with a group of boaters on April 15, 2019 as they travel down the Animas River. (Jerry McBride, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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The drought outlook in Colorado is the best it has been in at least 19 years, with the smallest area of the state being listed under some kind of dry status since June 5, 2001.

That’s according to nearly two decades of U.S. Drought Monitor data, which has been recorded since 2000.

“This is the lowest amount (of dryness) we’ve ever had since the Drought Monitor was put in place,” said Taryn Finnessey, a senior climate change specialist with Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources, who first pointed out the milestone. “I recognize there were certainly periods of time in the last 19 years where there have been areas of no drought. But in terms of the whole state, this is the least dry we have ever been.”

The U.S. Drought Monitor released a report Thursday showing that just roughly 8 square miles in Colorado are under abnormal dryness, or just 0.01% of the state. That little sliver could be just from a map-drawing error, according to Richard Heim, who drew the map and works for the National Centers for Environmental Information.

It’s all part of a dramatic turnaround since last summer when, at this same point, about 80% of the state was under some kind of dry status.

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Last summer, farmers were on edge about the conditions they faced in 2019. But a snowy winter followed by a wet spring have quenched Colorado’s thirst, leaving rivers running high and helping to refill reservoirs that looked apocalyptic in the fall.

“This has been an incredible turnaround in, really, just six months,” Finnessey said, adding that she could not have expected such a swing during last year’s hot and dry summer.

Even just compared to February, Colorado’s drought status looks incredibly different.

Colorado’s drought levels on Feb. 19, 2019 and May 21, 2019. Darker shades represent more severe drought. No coloration means no drought. Data and maps: U.S. Drought Monitor Graphics: Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun


“It is pretty astonishing,” said Randy Gray, a meteorological technician with the National Weather Service in Pueblo.

He noted that drought had been lingering in the Four Corners area and around the state’s southern border. But recent rains finally did the trick.

“Drought occurs slowly and it goes away slowly so that where Denver and Colorado Springs areas have had more consistent precipitation in this part of the year, they were able to clear out more quickly by April and early May,” he said. “It took us a little bit longer down here in the south.”

Gray said that he’s been in contact with farmers and ranchers who were suffering through the dry stretch. “Crops don’t grow. Crops don’t sprout. They can’t produce what they need to,” he said. “It’s just really been beneficial to the people who are out there.”

Farmer John Harold discards an ear of corn after finding bird damage while a harvest crew with the Tuxedo Corn Co. works to remove thousands of ears of Olathe Sweet corn crop from a field on July 10, 2018. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

With the state’s recent stretch of damp and wet weather, the drought outlook moving forward continues to appear bright.

“I think that we’re sitting pretty for a little while,” Finnessey said.

The state’s snowpack was at 240 percent of its median level on Thursday.

“I think we really have seen the best case scenario play out,” she added. “I will qualify that by saying we also need to dry out a little bit so producers can get things planted and we have a really well behaved runoff and don’t have flooding issue in burn scars.”

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