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How dry we are, how dry we are

Brief by Central Staff

Drought – June 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

The ongoing story this spring is drought, as in “Dry as a Baptist wedding” or “So dry that the jackrabbits are carrying canteens and compasses.” (Other metaphors for aridity are welcome, and those which are printable will be published.)

Statewide, Colorado averages 4.92 inches by mid-May; this year, it’s 1.58 inches, and precipitation has been below normal since last August.

Snowpacks never got very deep, and had almost vanished by May 1, and the Angel of Shavano above Salida had diminished to one wing, when normally she’s in her best form around July 4. In other words, she looked like late August in mid-May.

For further evidence of drought, you can check streamflow data from the U.S. Geological Survey. On May 12, the Rio Grande was flowing at 24 cubic feet per second in Alamosa. The long-term average flow for May 12 is 386 cfs, although that fluctuates considerably. The lowest was 4.7 in 1950, and the highest was 2,420 in 1916.

(One cfs or cusec is about 7.5 gallons per second or 450 gallons per minute. A garden hose open all the way typically provides about 7 gallons per minute.)

The Gunnison River near Gunnison was flowing at 380 cfs; the median May 12 flow (half above and half below) is 1,400.

On the Arkansas at Wellsville, a few miles east of Salida, the historic May 12 average is 818 cfs; it was 233 this year. Past flows have ranged from 2,570 in 1962 down to 216 in 1978.

For the summer, the Arkansas should flow well enough to float some rafts, thanks to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District. They’ve set aside 10,000 acre-feet of reservoir storage to be released from July 1 to Aug. 15.

Work out the numbers on that, and it comes to an extra 88 cfs through that period, although the releases will likely be timed to increase flows more during the day.