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Thin snowpack raises alarm through drought-scarred West

Budget cuts looming for Wildland Fire program

David Hofmann and Thomas Fiddler, commissioners with the Colorado Division of Water Resources, measure snowpack in Echo Basin in March 2011. With statewide snowpack at 72 percent of average as of Feb. 1, Colorado is facing the prospect of continued drought and wildfires. Enlarge photo

JOSH STEPHENSON/Herald file photo

David Hofmann and Thomas Fiddler, commissioners with the Colorado Division of Water Resources, measure snowpack in Echo Basin in March 2011. With statewide snowpack at 72 percent of average as of Feb. 1, Colorado is facing the prospect of continued drought and wildfires.

DENVER – Across the West, lakes are half full and mountain snows are thin, omens of another summer of drought and wildfire.

Complicating matters, many of the worst-hit states now have even less water on hand than a year ago, raising the specter of shortages and rationing that could inflict another year of losses on struggling farms.

Reservoir levels have fallen sharply in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada. The soil is drier than normal. And while a few recent snowstorms have cheered skiers, the snowpack is so thin in parts of Colorado that the government has declared an “extreme drought” around the ski havens of Vail and Aspen.

Last week’s blizzard brought a measure of relief to the Plains when it dumped more than a foot of snow. But it did not change the basic calculus for forecasters and officials in the drought-scarred West.

“It’s approaching a critical situation,” said Mike Hungenberg, who grows carrots and cabbage on a 3,000-acre farm in northern Colorado. There is so little water available this year, he said, that he may scale back his planting by a third.

Across Colorado, the snowpack is just 72 percent of average as of Feb. 1, which means less water to dampen hillsides and mountains vulnerable to fire, less water for farms to use on early-season crops and less to fill lakes and reservoirs.

Heavy rains and snow recently have brought some hope to the parched states of Iowa, Minnesota and Missouri. But 55.8 percent of the United States remains locked in drought, according to the government’s latest assessments. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., put it this way: “Mother Nature is testing us.”

Udall, Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, and other members of Colorado’s congressional delegation are seeking $20 million in emergency funds to help restore watersheds in Colorado ravaged by last year’s wildfires.

If Congress does not head off the looming across-the-board budget cuts set to take effect March 1, financing for the Forest Service’s Wildland Fire Management program also would be cut by $134 million. As many as 200,000 acres would not be treated to remove dry brush, dead wood and other tinder for wildfires.