Drought in Colorado on June 21, 2018. More than two thirds of Colorado is now in a state of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The southwest corner of the state has been designated by exceptional drought, the drought monitor's driest category. Credit: U.S. Drought Monitor

DENVER — Low snowpack and a dry spring have pushed most of Colorado into a record-breaking drought.

According to an update by the U.S. Drought Monitor on Thursday, most of the state is at some level of drought, while extreme or exceptional drought — the two worst categories — now cover one-third of Colorado.

The Department of Natural Resources also projected worsening conditions for June in their drought update released Monday afternoon.

The conditions have heightened wildfire risk in some areas while areas already consumed by fire are at risk of flash floods if too much rain falls on the unstable soils of the land’s burn scars.

“We as a state are looking at the trifecta of flood, fire and drought right now,” said Taryn Finnessey, co-chair of the state’s Water Availability Task Force, during the group’s meeting Thursday. “We are definitely juggling a lot of what-ifs.”

According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the statewide snowpack was the second-lowest on record, while temperatures for May were the second-highest.

This combination led snow to melt early across Colorado, with some areas losing their snow as much as three weeks earlier than normal. Precipitation also has lagged, reaching only 70 percent of normal for the year.

This perfect (lack of a) storm has rivers running low across the state. In mid-May, the Colorado River saw “some of the lowest peak flows in history,” according to Jim Pokrandt with the Colorado River District.

River levels remain well below normal, and last week rivers in the Roaring Fork Watershed were only flowing between 22 and 45 percent of normal. These conditions persist throughout the entire Upper Basin of the Colorado River and have drained Lake Powell to 52 percent of its normal level.

Credit: City of Aspen

Stage 1 in Aspen

The low flow rates also have led to above normal river temperatures, which can endanger fish populations and may lead to fishing bans later in the season.

Despite drought conditions, most water providers have been able to meet demand, and statewide reservoir storage remains at levels slightly above average. Still, some municipalities have had to tighten their belts.

The city of Aspen declared a Stage 1 water shortage May 18 after flows peaked about three weeks early on Castle and Maroon creeks, which provide most of the city’s drinking water.

Stage 1 requires all city property to reduce their water use by 10 percent and urges the rest of the community to voluntarily reduce their water use. But even with improvements in efficiency, water demand hasn’t fallen.

“It’s an interesting thing, because when you have a dry year you need more water for your landscaping,” said Margaret Medellin, Aspen’s utilities portfolio manager. “But we don’t want people to dry up their landscaping right now. We think it’s important for the community and for fire prevention.”

According to Medellin, the inch of rain the city saw last weekend alleviated irrigation demands somewhat, but it would not help much on the supply side. While the city is able to meet demands for now, Medellin said it was likely that the city would declare a Stage 2 water shortage toward the end of the summer, an unprecedented drought measure in Aspen that would impose mandatory water restrictions on the community.

Pitkin County issued a Stage 1 fire ban earlier this month and reminded people last week that even with soaking rain June 16, the ban is still in effect and conditions are dangerous.

Colorado rainfall in May 2018. The month of May saw record-breaking lows in precipitation in Colorado. The Colorado River Basin received only 54 percent of its average rainfall.

Southwest struggles

The situation is most dire in the state’s southwest, where some areas are the driest and hottest they’ve been since the dust bowl in the 1930s.

So far, the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan Basins have received only 31 percent of their average precipitation for the year, and monitoring sites from Grand Mesa to Mesa Verde National Park have reached record lows for both peak snow accumulation and precipitation.

These dry conditions have helped fuel wildfires in the region, including the 416 Fire, which burned more than 34,000 acres near Durango and is the fifth largest wildfire in Colorado history.

In the southwest, the drought has forced some ranchers to sell off their cattle and has prevented some farmers from planting.

These losses prompted Gov. John Hickenlooper to activate the Drought Mitigation and Response Plan for agriculture at the beginning of May. The mitigation plan charges state officials with coordinating local plans to prevent agricultural losses.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture also has designated 33 of Colorado’s 64 counties as primary natural disaster areas, allowing farmers to apply for financial relief at the end of the season.

Despite these interventions, state agencies expect more cattle sell-offs and crop failures unless conditions improve.

The governor has not yet activated the municipal interventions laid out in the Drought Mitigation and Response Plan, but he may later in the summer. While the state government does not have the power to institute mandatory municipal water restrictions, this section of the plan would allow for more coordination and water sharing between municipalities.

While the situation is expected to worsen throughout June, July and August could bring some improvements, with the National Weather Service predicting a strong monsoon season.

“The monsoon is often a savior,” Pokrandt said. “We will just have to wait and see.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent on coverage of water and rivers. The Times and the Post Independent published this story on Saturday, June 23, 2018 (the PI published in its print edition on Monday, June 25, 2018).