When the snow kept falling and many ski resorts stayed open through Memorial Day earlier this year, experts warned that healthy snowpack levels and a wet spring didn’t mean Colorado’s drought was over. They were right.
“Water Year 2019 ended in an unfortunate whimper,” read an advisory from the Colorado Climate Center issued October 1. “What started out with a bang (cooler than average temperatures, above average snow, wet spring into early summer) shifted to hot and dry conditions for much of the Intermountain West, ending with an underperforming monsoon season.”
For hydrologists and water managers, each October 1 marks the start of a new “water year,” and in Colorado and across much of the Southwest, Water Year 2020 is off to a dry start. After several drought-free months earlier this calendar year, nearly a third of Colorado is now experiencing drought conditions, and 70 percent of the state is considered “abnormally dry,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The quick reversal is part of a long-term trend toward hotter, drier conditions in the state, particularly on the Western Slope.
“We’ve had declining hydrology in the Colorado River Basin since 2000,” says Matt Rice, director of the Colorado River Basin program for advocacy group American Rivers. “One wet year, as we’re seeing, does not fix that problem. And in addition, because this wet year followed a very dry year, the actual water-supply contribution was not as high as the snowpack was.”
The drought that has gripped the Southwest for most of the past two decades is a "hot drought," driven primarily by the rising temperatures caused by climate change. Much of the Western Slope has already warmed by an average of more than two degrees Celsius since 1895, leading to declining stream flows across the Colorado River Basin, a system that provides water to nearly 40 million people in seven states.
“I don’t think the average person in Denver or on the Front Range understands that we use more water than we have in the system, and our available water is declining because of climate change,” says Rice.
The reduced stream flows, snowpack and reservoir levels experienced by communities across the West in recent years are here to stay, experts warn, and these drought conditions can't be easily reversed by one year of high precipitation. After a good 2019 snow year, drought designations have returned to Colorado in large part because the North American Monsoon, a weather pattern that typically brings precipitation to the Southwest in late summer, was a no-show this year; in Arizona, it was dubbed the "nonsoon." And state climatologists are already predicting that snowfall during this winter's ski season will be average at best.
"We're not necessarily in a drought anymore, because a 'drought' suggests that it has an end," Rice says. "We're in a new normal."
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Scientists with the Colorado River Research Group suggested a new word for what the West is experiencing in a 2018 paper: "Perhaps the best available term is aridification, which describes a period of transition to an increasingly water scarce environment — an evolving new baseline around which future extreme events (droughts and floods) will occur," the report's authors wrote. "Aridification, not drought, is the contingency that should guide the refinement of Colorado River management practices."
While they didn't use this new terminology, seven Western states, including Colorado, did sign a historic Drought Contingency Plan earlier this year, outlining how they will share the region's shrinking water supply and committing to voluntary reductions in water usage through 2026. At the state level, Colorado officials have developed the Colorado Water Plan, which was finalized in 2015 and could be funded in large part by a new tax revenue stream created by Proposition DD, the sports-betting measure being considered by voters in November.
Better management of drought conditions — and ultimately, halting climate change — is a top policy priority for many Coloradans, from the farmers and ranchers who bear the brunt of water shortages and communities facing increased wildfire risks to resort towns that rely on good snowpack in the winter and healthy stream flows in the summer. Rice says that policymakers and members of the public should remember that — even in the good years.
"We lose our urgency when we have years like 2019," he says. "I think it's a pretty good example of what we can expect going forward. We're going to see extremely dry years, and then we'll see a big year, and then more extremely dry years. That makes it very hard to plan around, so it underscores the importance of developing the tools we need, and implementing the plans that we have, to best position ourselves for an increasingly uncertain, risk-filled future."