Efforts are afoot to install a new radar system in Southwest Colorado that would effectively fill in one of the nation’s largest weather forecasting blind spots.
The Four Corners has long been known as a sort of “blind spot” when it comes to weather and radar modeling, as major hubs in Albuquerque, Grand Junction and Flagstaff, Arizona, take in data at elevations too high to accurately hone in on places like Durango.
Jim Pringle, a warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, said the radar system atop Grand Mesa is unable to detect storms that come into the Four Corners at elevations below 28,000 feet.
With storms regularly coming in below this threshold, weather patterns can easily be missed.
“We had a situation in Vallecito a few years ago where there were golf-sized balls of hail falling,” Pringle said. “But our radar system was only picking up a weak system.”
There has always been a desire to bring a radar system to the Four Corners. But with the 416 Fire last summer posing unprecedented flood danger in its aftermath, the need is immediate, said Butch Knowlton, La Plata County’s director for the Office of Emergency Management.
A temporary radar system was brought in and placed atop Missionary Ridge, which allowed emergency managers to see incoming storms that may impact the 416 Fire burn scar and cause flooding.
“It showed us exactly what was taking place in the 416 burn area, and as a result, we had better ability to predict some of the storm happenings,” he said. “That made many agencies really understand the need for having one down here.”
Last week, conversations began with several state agencies that expressed interest in funding the purchase and installation of a permanent radar system to be located at a site to be determined in La Plata County.
“It’s in the very beginning phases,” said Megan Graham, spokeswoman for La Plata County. “However, it’s certainly been on folks’ – and not to be corny – radar for quite some time. And the need has been demonstrated in the aftermath of the 416 Fire.”
Graham said Alamosa County, an area that also lacks sufficient radar but is about to get its first radar system, is being looked at as a good model. There, a group of partners are helping keep the radar running after it is installed for about $1 million.
Calls to Alamosa County were not returned Wednesday.
Graham said on top of weather forecasting and emergency management, the radar system would be a benefit for irrigation and water users, as well as a good source for transportation alerts during storms.
Attempts to reach Bruce Whitehead with Southwest Water Conservation District were unsuccessful Wednesday. Representatives with the Colorado Water Conservation Board did not return calls seeking comment.
Pringle said a radar system in the Four Corners would go a long way in helping predict weather systems.
“It’d be wonderful if they were able to get a smaller Doppler radar to help fill the gap,” he said.
Brian Devine, water quality program manager for San Juan Basin Public Health, said there is also an effort to install a water-quality sensor and a stream-flow gauge on Hermosa Creek, the main drainage for the 416 Fire.
The local health department asked for funding for the stream gauge through a grant opportunity with the Environmental Protection Agency. Devine was unsure when a final decision would be made.
“It’s important based on the fire that happened and the water users in that area,” he said. “It’s a big concern in the community because there’s nothing (no gauges) between Silverton and Durango.”
Devine was unsure how much a new stream gauge would cost, but he said it could be installed at the site of a former U.S. Geological Survey gauge on Hermosa Creek that was closed down in the 1980s.
Calls to the USGS were not returned Wednesday.