Wildfires, lack of precipitation year’s biggest story

2012 was a severe drought year, affecting most of Colorado. Paonia Dam sits nearly empty in this file photo from July 27.



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2012 was a severe drought year, affecting most of Colorado. Paonia Dam sits nearly empty in this file photo from July 27.

At the very start of 2012, there was a heavy hint of what was to come.

A drought that became the region’s biggest story of 2012 — and has yet to end — already was establishing itself. As of Jan. 1, Colorado’s snowpack was 71 percent of average, the fourth lowest in 30 years and the lowest since Jan. 1, 2002, a year of major wildfires in Colorado.

Thankfully, there was plenty of winter to come. Theoretically, at least. But not in 2012, when meager snowfall led to consequences for everyone from farmers and ranchers, to residential water users, to those involved with preventing and fighting wildfires.

While March usually accounts for about a fifth of seasonal snow accumulation, the Natural Resources Conservation Service said March 2012’s precipitation was just 29 percent of average. Snowpack already was beginning to melt that month, whereas on average the state’s snowpack accumulation doesn’t peak until April 12.

After a disappointing season for skiers, dry, windy, warm conditions continued in the coming months. Spring runoff was so meager as to be almost unnoticeable in area rivers and streams. The Colorado River’s flow in early June was at nearly 100-year lows for that time of year.

Then came summer, and on the Front Range, the two most destructive fires in the state’s history, in the Colorado Springs and Fort Collins areas.

Western Colorado wasn’t spared. On June 28, the Pine Ridge Fire raced across thousands of acres west of De Beque, briefly closing Interstate 70 and also forcing evacuations of some homes. In total, the fire burned nearly 14,000 acres. A rainstorm days later dumped debris and ash in the Colorado River, forcing the Clifton Water District to shut off its intake for more than a day and turn to water provided by the Ute Water Conservancy District.

Meanwhile, this year’s reseeding efforts aimed at helping stabilize soils have proven disappointing due to lack of enough moisture in the summer and fall at the fire site to achieve much germination.

While Pine Ridge was bad, western Colorado firefighting authorities feared even worse for the region this summer, but fortunately it didn’t come. With tinder-dry vegetation, fuel conditions were being compared to 1994, the year a wildfire west of Glenwood Springs killed 14 firefighters.

Agencies responded aggressively this year with fire restrictions, such as bans on campfires even in fire pits and grates in developed campgrounds. Some much-needed monsoon rains arrived, providing at least spotty relief across the region, without leading to many lightning-sparked blazes.

Still, other impacts of drought this year were extensive. Faced with conditions such as rising hay prices and poor grazing conditions, some ranchers were forced to sell off livestock they otherwise would have held onto longer. Residential customers of Redlands Water and Power Co. were rationed irrigation water on an alternating-day schedule. Local municipal water suppliers, acting on a drought response plan created following the 2002 drought, implemented voluntary water restrictions, although Ute Water reported a temporary increase in use this summer as residents apparently boosted their irrigation activity.

The Bureau of Land Management took the unusual step of providing emergency water to about 50 wild horses south of Rangely. The agency eventually removed some of the horses out of concern they would die of thirst, but later suspended the roundup after several days of rain.

Flood ponds that help endangered fish such as the razorback sucker failed to fill, and the drought also created difficulties in terms of efforts to aid such fish. But in actions that earned praise from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, some irrigation districts and other local water organizations voluntarily boosted flows and undertook operational measures and infrastructure projects on behalf of the fish.

For Colorado, this year’s drought was far different from the one in 2002 in one respect. While 2001-02 was a second-straight dry winter, the 2012 drought was preceded by epic snowfall during the winter of 2010-11. That meant reservoirs generally had plentiful water storage to help temper the effects of the dry spell that has followed. But now, reservoirs are no longer well-positioned to come to the state’s rescue should the drought continue, contributing to fears for much worse impacts if the drought continues next year. These could include Stage 2, mandatory water restrictions for customers of several Grand Valley municipal water suppliers next year.

Statewide, reservoir storage was just 38 percent of capacity and two-thirds of normal as of the end of November, and with snow at first slow to come in late 2012, water-watchers are anxiously watching to see what the rest of winter brings, precipitation-wise.

Forecasters say that with it being a “No Niño” winter — expected to display neither an El Niño nor a La Niña weather pattern as predicted by water temperatures in the equatorial eastern Pacific Ocean — it’s particularly difficult to say how wet a season is in store. But conditions have improved in recent weeks. According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, statewide snowpack was just 38 percent of average in late November. However, as of Saturdayit had reached 73 percent of average for that date, buoyed by recent storms. Averages ranged from 72 percent in the Upper Colorado River Basin to 87 percent in the Yampa/White rivers.

Heading into December, 2012 precipitation in Grand Junction was 3.47 inches, lower than the 12-month total for the driest year on record, 1900, when 3.64 inches fell. But a snowy December kept this year from achieving a dubious first-place ranking. As of Saturday, precipitation for the month had jumped to 4.47 inches, knocking the year fairly securely into third place, behind 4.41 inches in 1956 and ahead of fourth-place 1976, when 5.27 inches fell, said John Kyle, data acquisition program manager with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction.

This year will land squarely in second place for warmest average temperature, at 55.9 degrees for the year, he said. He said that compares to the “through the roof” record heat of 1934, which averaged 57.5 degrees, and the 55.3-degree average in the third-warmest year, 1940.

Despite the recent promise shown by December storms, people shouldn’t get their hopes high for several snowy months ahead. Kyle said the three-month outlook is for above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation.

That would be in keeping with local experience when it comes to No Niño winters. The last four have produced wetter-than-average Decembers and Aprils, with the periods in between, perhaps, being drier than normal, Kyle said. If that proves the case again this winter, “hopefully we’ll get another wet April.”

until April 12.

After a disappointing season for skiers, dry, windy, warm conditions continued in the coming months. Spring runoff was so meager as to be almost unnoticeable in area rivers and streams. The Colorado River’s flow in early June was at nearly 100-year lows for that time of year.

Then came summer, and on the Front Range, the two most destructive fires in the state’s history, in the Colorado Springs and Fort Collins areas.

Western Colorado wasn’t spared. On June 28, the Pine Ridge Fire raced across thousands of acres west of De Beque, briefly closing Interstate 70 and also forcing evacuations of some homes. In total, the fire burned nearly 14,000 acres. A rainstorm days later dumped debris and ash in the Colorado River, forcing the Clifton Water District to shut off its intake for more than a day and turn to water provided by the Ute Water Conservancy District.

Meanwhile, this year’s reseeding efforts aimed at helping stabilize soils have proven disappointing due to lack of enough moisture in the summer and fall at the fire site to achieve much germination.

While Pine Ridge was bad, western Colorado firefighting authorities feared even worse for the region this summer, but fortunately it didn’t come. With tinder-dry vegetation, fuel conditions were being compared to 1994, the year a wildfire west of Glenwood Springs killed 14 firefighters.



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