Only one year in the last century has been drier in the Grand Valley than the current water year, according to federal statistics that go back to 1899.

So far this water year — which began Oct. 1 — Mesa County has seen 1.09 inches of precipitation, an aridity measurement only matched in the 20th century by the 1976-77 water year, which saw an accumulation of just 0.80 of an inch from October through February.

The worst water year in local history was 1899-1900, in which 0.24 of an inch of moisture was recorded for the water year.

A storm forecast to arrive this weekend could take some of the sting out of the drought that so far is forming, National Weather Service meteorologist Megan Stackhouse said.

The culprit appears to be a weak La Niña, a weather pattern that tends to drive moisture into the northern jet stream — leaving much of Colorado high and dry, especially the southern mountains. Snowpack in the south is running about 40 percent of normal.

While precipitation totals so far are none too encouraging, water managers are still hoping for a turnaround, such as the "Miracle May" in 2015 that pumped enough rain into the upper Colorado River basin to take the pressure off upstream managers worried about how quickly Lake Powell was dropping.

Something similar happened in 2012-13, said Max Schmidt, general manager of the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District.

"By April 2013, it looked like two dry years in a row and then the rains came and it was a regular year," Schmidt said. "I'm hoping for something similar."

Talks already are beginning among local, state and federal officials about how to manage a drought should current trends continue.

Given the potential for some storms to roll in, the Grand Junction office of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is going to see how the first part of February plays out, hydrologist Erik Knight said.

The office already has moved to hold back more water in the Aspinall unit of reservoirs on the Gunnison River. Blue Mesa Reservoir is holding steady so far at 67 percent of capacity.

"Everybody's thinking more and more about a drought-contingency plan," said Mark Harris, general manager of the Grand Valley Water Users Association.

If nothing else, a drought might focus the need for additional storage, said Larry Clever, general manager of the Ute Water Conservancy District, which is working to expand its Monument Reservoir atop Grand Mesa.

Other than that, though, "We're watching, but there's not a thing we can do. We'll deal with it."

One of the more visible signs that winter has sort of skipped its arrival is Grand Valley residents seeing their trees starting to form buds, but "not to the point of changing color," said Susan Carter, horticulture agent for Colorado State University Tri-River Area Extension.

Carter said tree species have different "chill" times, or the amount of time a tree needs to be dormant in the winter to produce high yields. The good news is peach trees in the Grand Valley were able to harden off or head into their dormancy stage earlier this winter, she said.

While the sighting of early tree buds may be alarming, Carter has heard from longtime farmers who have seen apricot trees bud as early as late February.

Still, scant precipitation in the fall, followed by the dry winter so far, may be difficult on trees, Carter said. The warm, dry winter weather also may give some damaging pests a foothold to infect and distress trees and lawns.

Carter recommends giving lawns and trees a good soak about once a month in the winter when moisture is scant.

Staff writer Amy Hamilton contributed to this report.


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