The state of Colorado has activated the municipal portion of its emergency drought plan for only the second time in history as several cities say they need to prepare for what is almost certainly going to be a dangerously dry 2021.
Last summer, the state formally activated the agricultural portion of the plan, calling on government agencies that serve farmers and livestock producers to begin coordinating aid efforts among themselves and with growers.
Now a similar process will begin for cities, according to Megan Holcomb, who oversees the drought work for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state’s lead water policy agency.
Holcomb said the state’s decision to sound the alarm on municipal water supply came in response to requests from several cities, who believe the drought has become so severe that they need to prepare quickly for whatever 2021 may bring. Normally cities don’t make decisions about whether to impose watering restrictions until the spring, when it becomes clear how much water will melt from mountain snows and fill reservoirs.
But not this year.
“Even with an average snowpack we will still be in drought in the spring,” Holcomb said.
Colorado Springs, just last summer, enacted permanent three-days-per-week outdoor watering restrictions.
Kalsoum Abbasi oversees the city’s water delivery system and its reservoirs. She said the state’s decision to activate phase III drought planning makes sense.
“Personally I think it’s a good move for the state to move forward because it will help keep these drought conditions at the forefront of the conversation,” she said.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the state is now blanketed in drought, with more than two-thirds of its terrain classified as being in extreme or exceptional drought, the worst condition.
Colorado has experienced four severe droughts since 2000, but the trend has intensified with the drought of 2018 barely lifting before 2020 began seeing searing temperatures and dry weather again.
Going into 2021 soils across the state are desperately dry. As mountain snows melt and runoff makes its way to streams, a large share of the moisture will be absorbed by the thirsty landscape, leaving less for reservoirs and cities to collect.
“Soil moisture is a huge part of this story,” Holcomb said. “I also think 2020 is likely the hottest year on record globally. Long-term forecasts for temperatures show January through October of next year being extremely warm again.”
Colorado is divided into eight major river basins, with the four to the west of the Continental Divide feeding the bigger Colorado River Basin, which extends from the Never Summer Mountains in Rocky Mountain National Park to Mexico.
Federal forecasts for this system over the next several months have been dropping sharply. Paul Miller, a hydrologist for the Colorado River Basin Forecasting Center in Salt Lake City, said the amount of water predicted to be generated by this winter’s mountain snows dropped to 5.6 million acre-feet in December, down from 6.45 million acre-feet just one month earlier.
“Even before this recent change there was cause for concern because this past year was very dry and reservoir levels fell,” Miller said.
Local city water officials such as Jerrod Biggs, deputy director of utilities in Durango, said there is little time to waste.
Durango lies in the southwest corner of the state. The region has been hardest hit by the current drought and was similarly hard hit in 2018.
“All the groundwork we can lay today is worth it. Everybody hopes it’s not needed. But sticking our heads in the sand isn’t going to do anybody any good. It’s ugly and it’s getting uglier,” Biggs said.