CSU State Climatologist to U.S. Drought Monitor: Nearly All of Colorado under Drought Conditions

Note to Reporters: For drought conditions across the United States, go to the U.S. Drought Monitor at http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/. Photos are available iwht the news release at http://news.colostate.edu.

Despite the cooler weather coming in, Colorado State University climatologists have officially confirmed for the U.S. Drought Monitor what many people in Colorado already know: About 98 percent of the state is experiencing varying levels of drought.

The most severe drought in the state is in the Arkansas Basin where drought ranges from D1, or “moderate” drought to D3, or “extreme” conditions as a result of last summer’s Texas drought which also affected Colorado. A newer area of D2 or “severe” drought has recently been added to the Yampa/White Basin in northwestern Colorado due to lack of sufficient snowpack this season.

Most of the Northeastern Plains are designated as “abnormally dry.” In October, 60 percent of the state didn’t have any drought categories. That has shrunk to 2 percent, said Nolan Doesken, the state climatologist who is based at Colorado State University.

“Even though reservoir levels are still strong and northeast Colorado soil moisture is still pretty good, we just don’t usually start out quite this warm and dry at this time – so this is very concerning.”

Some comparison is being made to 2002, which was the last major drought in Colorado.

“In 2002, things didn’t seem that bad at the end of March as March had been quite cool with some snow,” Doesken said. “April 2002 was a lot like March 2012 in that there was scarcely any precip statewide and the snowpack just disappeared without producing much runoff. I don’t recall much fire issues until mid April 2002, but then things started going crazy.

“There is plenty of time yet for at least some parts of Colorado to improve,” Doesken said. “Our spring ‘cool wet season’ continues into mid-May in southern Colorado and into the first or second week of June in northern Colorado. We typically need – and often receive – about three major widespread cold and soaking storms during this coming 10- to 11-week period along with increasing amounts of scattered thunderstorms, especially from late April onward.”

Statewide, the northeast plains have received less than 5 percent of normal for the March – that’s the worst for the state, said Wendy Ryan, research associate who works with Doesken in CSU’s Colorado Climate Center.

“The temperature has been 6 to 9 degrees above normal,” Ryan said. “The mountains have already started melting out after some improvement in February. I recently helped with the snow course at Cameron Pass and it’s only 50 percent of normal at the end of March. The two lower courses, Big South and Chambers were single digit percents of normal with barely any snow cover at all.”

The U.S. Drought Monitor officially tracks drought conditions across the United States; the office of the State Climatologist at Colorado State University is responsible for reporting Colorado’s conditions to the monitor. The drought monitor, through the National Drought Mitigation Center based at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is a synthesis of multiple indices and impacts that represent a consensus of some 200 federal and academic scientists.

In Fort Collins, March was the warmest in 124 years of record keeping, Ryan said.

“In Fort Collins, we had the hottest and driest March on record,” Ryan said. “This is the first time we’ve ever had only a trace of precipitation for March. No years have had zero.”

Ryan said the Front Range urban corridor has been one inch or more below average for March. The entire state is below 50 percent with the exception of the far Eastern Plains, which have received some moisture.

The statewide snowpack has declined in recent weeks and is currently only 60 percent of normal, she said.

“March is one of our bigger precipitation months on the Front Range so to not have anything is a big deal,” Ryan said. “This is pretty much polar opposite to last year with record snowpack continued to accumulate in the mountains all spring.”