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Heat, drought, and deluge

Brief by Central Staff

Climate – August 2006 – Colorado Central Magazine

Drought continues to plague many Colorado communities this summer, but in different ways. Fires plagued the southern Rockies, including a huge blaze along La Veta Pass, which shut the highway, and thus affected towns as far away as Alamosa and Poncha Springs.

In Custer County, high winds and lightning contributed to several grass and forest fires, including the 500-acre Tyndall Gulch Blaze. By late June, campfire restrictions were in place throughout the state, and many mountain communities had decided to cancel 4th of July fireworks displays.

In late June, the City of Salida announced that it would provide extra fire protection and hold their local fireworks display despite dry conditions (barring a state-wide ban). Fire restrictions mounted as the holiday approached, but Salida planned for the big event, regardless. On the morning of the 4th, a flashing sign just outside the city limits warned of EXTREME fire danger. But as it turned out, an afternoon gully washer dampened dangers and festivities (at least temporarily). Salida’s celebration continued, though, with a parade, a band in the park, fireworks, and numerous picnics carried inside.

In the first of a series of articles about drought, the June 23 Fairplay Flume reported that seven years of drought threatened “farmers, ranchers and wildlife.” The paper quoted Leon Kot of the National Resources Conservation Service saying, “Elk could start starving over this deal.”

A story in the June Crestone Eagle warned that the Rio Grande Water Conservation District was concerned about ongoing water problems. Steve Vandiver told the commissioners, “The reality is: we have bankrupted our water account.”

And the paper quoted George Whitten saying, “Agriculture will not be the same as we face changes in water use.”

Due to low snow and rainfall for several years, the groundwater supply in the San Luis Valley has been falling, and voluntary conservation efforts have not yielded the hoped for results. So now it looks like wells may have to be metered, and perhaps some may even have to be shut down. Thus, the Eagle reported, the RGWCD addressed the Saguache County Commissioners “to encourage the creation of sub-districts in which water users can participate in monitoring water use and resolving problems….”

In the Gunnison basin, things looked considerably better, but not ideal. The Gunnison Country Times reported that Blue Mesa Reservoir is full for the first time in seven years. “But a full reservoir doesn’t guarantee that the Upper Gunnison is in good shape for the entire summer. In fact, monsoon season will be more critical this year than usual due to the dry April and May that the basin experienced.”

Soon after July 4th, however, drought-fraught land in much of our region was quenched by a deluge, washing some of it clean away. For awhile it rained day and night, night and day, converting our backroads into muck, greening the fields, muddying our rivers, and producing some curious juxtaposition in headlines. On July 8th, the Rocky Mountain News announced “Risks Rise with Rivers,” right next to “Prayin’ for rain back at the ranch” (part 2 in a series on drought). By July 9th, the Denver Post headlines were all about floods and mud slides.

In our part of Colorado, which has been seriously drought-ridden for many years, the rain was mostly welcome — despite some damage and inconvenience. But by the fourth day, it was enough to give one pause. What if all of this worry about drought has things backwards? What if our warming globe starts to generate more evaporation and more rain? What if it started drizzling steadily around here, molding hay and mildewing everything else all of the time? It’s enough to bring to mind that old chestnut “Be careful what you wish for” — since just a few days of dismal weather can sure make you yearn for sunshine.