An emergency water year, even for a desert

You know it when you see it, but when it comes to pinning down the specifics of what constitutes a drought, location is key.

Many parts of the world can define drought as a certain number of days or weeks without significant rainfall. That definition may hold up somewhat for the eastern U.S., but it would place much of the arid West in a state of perpetual drought — which may not be too far from the truth.

Rainfall averages around only 8 inches a year for Grand Junction, where, as in most of the West, water is provided by melting snowpack rather than rainfall. For Colorado, then, the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University offers the definition “a period of insufficient snowpack and reservoir storage to provide adequate water to urban and rural areas.”

There are certain risks inherent to trying to live in what is essentially a desert, as farmers and ranchers here know. But if water supply falls to an extreme low, spurring the governor to call a state of emergency, assistance such as emergency loans is made available to those farmers and ranchers whose businesses are hurt by the exceptional circumstances.

There is a difference, however, between an “emergency” and a typical year in the desert.

For many regions, the determination of that difference is made based on previous experiences. The drought response plan created by Grand Junction, Palisade, the Clifton Water District and the Ute Water Conservancy District, for instance, starts to kick into gear — as it did last week — when conditions are recognized as similar to the 2002 drought. Once local governments reach their capacity to help, the governor might declare a state of emergency and offer state assistance. And once state resources are used up, the state might seek federal assistance for supporting its residents hurt by what at that point would be an exceptionally severe drought.

Unlike when a spark ignites dry brush or a flood breeches a levee, there is no clear beginning for a drought. But there is a typical progression from one condition to the next. This year, far lower-than-average snowfall set the stage. Then, spring precipitation also fell well below average. On top of that, spring temperatures shot up above average. Drought was seen on the horizon for months, but when exactly it was set in motion is not nearly as clear as the fact that it is here now.


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