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One-third of Colorado is now in a severe drought, mostly in the south

58 out of 64 counties are experiencing drier than normal conditions and that could mean wildfire trouble and result in crop losses

The country’s second largest potato producing region, is in its 18th year of drought in 2020. The San Luis Valley in Colorado is known for its agriculture yet only has 6-7 inches of rainfall per year. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Drought conditions are setting in across most of Colorado, and that has top state officials worried about wildfire, crop losses and water restrictions.

Nearly 83% of Colorado is experiencing abnormally dry conditions and 33% is reporting extreme or severe drought, as of Tuesday, the U.S. Drought Monitor reported, up slightly from the week before.

A year ago, none of the state was experiencing drought conditions.

Colorado’s drought map since October of 2019. The darkest red areas are D3, or Extreme Drought, the second-highest level measured by the United States Drought Monitor. (United States Drought Monitor)

The driest conditions are in the southern plains and in southwest Colorado, where wind-driven wildfires are burning in four locations.

“What makes or breaks a fire season is ignition and wind,” Tim Mathewson, a meteorologist at the Bureau of Land Management said. “This year, we have had some hellacious wind events.”

So far, confined to southwest Colorado, and nothing like the 2002 and 2012 seasons that began in the spring and affected the entire state, the conditions are ready for ignition, whether the fires are caused by nature or humans, Mathewson said. 

“It’s been busy, but it still does not rank up to our biggest ones,” he said.

But that could change within the next few weeks. 

The Southwest Monsoon, which comes annually to Arizona, New Mexico and parts of Colorado in July, brings moisture — and its trademark thunderstorms and flooding — from southern Mexico and is important to farmers and ranchers in the region. This year, the monsoon is expected to relieve dry conditions in the southern parts of Colorado and lower the risk of wildfires there. 

“In seven to 10 days, we hope to be talking about the first moisture pulse coming out of the southwest,” he said. “The onset of the Southwest Monsoon is the first sign that fire and drought season will start moving north.”

The abnormally dry conditions also have implications for farmers and ranchers and so Gov. Jared Polis has activated the state Drought Task Force. The panel, made up of the departments of Agriculture, Natural Resources, Local Affairs, Public Safety and the Colorado Water Conservation Board, will assess the potential damage to Colorado’s $8 billion agricultural economy. 

“It doesn’t necessarily mean that there are impacts currently affecting communities, but it does mean that the U.S. Drought Monitor is showing drier conditions than are optimal,” said Sara Leonard spokeswoman for the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

The task force will meet weekly and use information ranging from on-the-ground reports from farmers to satellite images, to discuss actions that could be taken to aid communities experiencing effects of the drought, Leonard said.


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