It appears Southwest Colorado is slowly digging its way out of severe drought conditions.
Every Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor releases a map that shows areas of drought throughout the country on a scale of D1 to D4.
Since October 2017, Southwest Colorado and the Four Corners have been listed at varying levels of drought. On April 17, 2018, the region was listed in the D4, “exceptional drought,” category – the most extreme listing the U.S. Drought Monitor has.
La Plata County has remained in the exceptional drought listing ever since – that is, until this Thursday, when the rating was dropped a notch for most of the county to D3, “extreme drought.”
Brian Fuches with the U.S. Drought Monitor said snowfall received so far this winter prompted the center to lower the drought severity level.
As of Jan. 24, snowpack in the Animas, Dolores, San Juan and San Miguel basins was at 95 percent of normal, historic averages.
That’s a far cry from the 2017-18 winter season, when the San Juan Mountains received just half of the snowpack it usually does.
But there’s still concern, Fuches said.
The northern sliver of La Plata County, and all of San Juan County, remain in the D4 listing.
And even though most of Southwest Colorado was downgraded this week, it is entirely possible drought conditions could worsen. With droughts, it is a slow onset, slow recovery process, Fuches said.
“It’s not like we hit a switch and all of a sudden we’re out of a drought,” Fuches said. “Drought is a long-term process, so even though Southwest Colorado has shown some recovery, it’s probably going to take a good amount of time to see significant recovery.”
The 2018 water year (October 2017 through January 2018) was the second-lowest water year in recorded history for Southwest Colorado. It led to area reservoirs dropping to staggering lows, farmers and ranchers running out of water and prime wildfire conditions, which culminated with the 416 Fire.
But in October 2018, moisture started to return to the region, and a series of snowstorms over the past few weeks has snowpack building in the San Juans. As of Wednesday, a snow station near Molas Lake, at an elevation of 10,500 feet, recorded a snow depth of 47 inches.
Calls to the Pine River Irrigation District, which manages Vallecito Reservoir, were not returned Thursday morning. But a gauge of the reservoir’s water level shows Vallecito is at 30 percent capacity, improving slightly from mid-December when the lake was just 25 percent full. As of Thursday, Lemon Reservoir was at 17 percent capacity.
The snow has also lured more visitors to Purgatory Resort, said spokesman Greg Ralph. At this time last year, on Jan. 24, 2018, Purgatory had just 35 inches. As of Thursday, the resort had 131 inches.
“Which would explain that we are up over 50 percent in visitation numbers this season,” Ralph said.
Fuches said the true test for getting out of the drought will be whether winter continues to deliver snow, and just how much area reservoirs fill up after snow starts to melt in the spring.
“Yes, we did show improvement this week, and that’s good,” he said. “But we still have a long winter season to go, and we need to continue to get snow.”
In Montezuma County, the drop in drought intensity, combined with mountain snowpack tracking near 100 percent of average, bodes well for the 2019 irrigation season.
Mountain snowfall in the Dolores Basin, which feeds McPhee Reservoir in spring, was at 99 percent of average as of Jan. 22, according to data from Snotel measuring devices at El Diente, Lizard Head, Lone Cone and Scotch Creek. The Snotels are positioned between 9,000 and 11,000 feet in elevation.
Southwest Colorado slipped into a bit of a dry spell this week, and it’s expected to stay that way for at least another week.
Mike Charnick, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, said a ridge of high pressure off the West Coast is preventing storms from coming inland to the interior West.
“It’s going to be stationary for the next few days, and through the weekend,” he said.
Charnick said it looks like the ridge of high pressure may break down by next week, which could allow storms, and the potential for more snow, to hit Southwest Colorado.