The Animas River has been setting records this week – just not the good kind.
All week, the Animas River has recorded record lows at a gauge station in Durango, which has been tracking flows on the river for 107 years.
On Thursday, for instance, the Animas River was reportedly running at 117 cubic feet per second – under the previous record low of 138 cfs in 1957 and far below the average of 447 cfs for this time of year.
The low flows on the Animas River come as no surprise as the region has been gripped by a prolonged drought.
Since January, a weather station at Durango-La Plata County Airport has recorded just 5 inches or so of precipitation, a 7-inch departure from historic averages at the site.
On Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor released a report that showed all of La Plata County engulfed in the “extreme” and “exceptional” drought categories, the center’s highest listings for dryness in a region.
And, several weather stations in the headwaters of the Animas River recorded the lowest precipitation levels in August and September based on about 40 years of record keeping.
“The combination of an extremely dry spring, lack of a monsoon and above-average summer and fall temperatures has resulted in very low flows on the Animas River,” said Ashley Nielson, a senior hydrologist with the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center.
In Colorado, what’s known as “water years” start Oct. 1 and run through Sept. 30, a time period that covers the cycle of snow falling in the high country in fall and winter, melting snowpack in spring and then a summer of use.
Becky Bollinger, a research associate with the Colorado Climate Center, said 2020’s water year was the third-driest on record, behind only the infamous drought years of 2002 and 2018.
“It has not been a good year,” she said.
The high country of the San Juan Mountains received about normal snowpack this winter, but it melted fast and early. On top of that, soils were so dry they absorbed more water than usual.
One issue that concerns Bollinger is that the atmosphere is so dry, it is causing rapid evaporation of what little moisture there is – called evaporative demand.
“That really is a double whammy ... which makes it feel a lot more worse,” she said.
Bollinger wonders whether a lack of monsoons in Colorado is the new normal.
“This is the fourth year in a row we have not gotten the benefits of monsoon moisture,” she said. “It’s concerning to think that might be a trend. Or is it just really bad luck? I don’t know the answer to that right now.”
Jarrod Biggs, the city of Durango’s assistant utilities director, said the city has been able to keep up with water demand, which has remained steady this fall, likely because of unseasonably high temperatures.
In September, for instance, about 5 million gallons of water was used a day, up from the historic average of about 4.3 million gallons.
The city of Durango gets its water from the Florida River, and when needed, from the Animas River. The city has little storage capacity in its relatively small reservoir, so operations are managed on a more day-to-day demand basis.
“If we conserve, we don’t have a place to put it, we just let the water go by,” he said. “So unless we aren’t getting enough water to meet demand, we don’t ring the bell and say people should conserve.”
Still, Biggs said people should be smart about their water use.
But lack of water is not specific to Durango and the Animas River.
As of this week, Vallecito and Lemon reservoirs were at about 24% and 27% capacity. Ken Beck, superintendent of the Pine River Irrigation District, said in an email to constituents that outflows were reduced to 5 cfs on Thursday.
“We will hold there and watch and pray for moisture this fall and early winter,” Beck wrote. “However, the forecast for moisture is dismal, consequently, we are making some adjustments now.”
The main concern for water managers is whether the upcoming winter will bring enough snowpack to replenish reservoirs. In previous drought years, such as 2018, the next winter brought heavy snowfall.
But meteorologists say the region may be stuck in a La Niña cycle, which typically means less snow for Southwest Colorado. That could result in less water for livestock and municipalities, and spell disaster for next year’s wildfire season.
“Frankly, my concern is next spring,” Biggs said. “I’m crossing my fingers that all the meteorologists are wrong ... but when I’m looking at all the data put in front of me ... next year does not look great.”
Earlier this week, it appeared a storm was going to move into Southwest Colorado and bring moisture, but Scott Stearns with the National Weather Service, said the storm is now tracking farther north and will miss the region.
“It’s not much of a story anymore,” he said. “It’s kind of a dud.”
Bollinger, however, tried to end on a positive note, saying winter is just beginning, and if we know anything about Colorado’s weather habits, we know it’s erratic at best.
“That’s what I love about living here, you really don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said. “What’s concerning now could change just like that at the snap of a finger.”