It is no exaggeration to say that the winter of 2017-2018 so far is one of the worst many on the Front Range can remember. Snowpack is at historic lows, even at the higher elevations, and according to some researchers the state is on track for its worst winter in terms of snow in at least 60 years, with numbers that area barely 10% to 20% of average.
“There’s no way to sugar coat it,” Boulder-based meteorologist Joel Gratz recently told Outside magazine, “there’s just not a lot of snow on the ground.”
The immediate impacts of this are fairly obvious: the state’s ski areas are suffering, although recent investments in snowmaking technology, especially at the busy I-70 resorts like Vail and Copper Mountain are blunting that impact. Still, word gets out. Colorado has no snow, and so potential visitors are increasingly looking elsewhere for their winter fun. (Things have gotten so bad in Aspen that the ski corporation there recently opened a soup kitchen to feed the many ski area employees in town who have yet to start work because of the snow conditions.)
But it’s what comes next that has many in the state worried.
Because there are two types of years in Colorado: wet years and dry years. And 2018 is shaping up to be a very dry year.
Our snow problems are due not to abnormally warm weather, but instead to ongoing dryness statewide. According to Colorado natural resources officials, most of the state is currently classified as “abnormally dry” while parts of the Western Slope is officially in drought. In the winter, this generally means reduced snowfall. But in the summer, which is already dry in Colorado, things often get bad.
Risk factors to watch in 2018 include:
Dry weather can lead to ideal conditions for wildfire. In fact, the 214-square-mile Hayman Fire tore through parts of the Front Range in 2002, following an abnormally dry winter with low snowpack. Ten years later, in 2012, similar conditions led to one of the worst Colorado wildfire seasons in years, highlighted by the deadly Waldo Canyon Fire near Colorado Springs and the Flagstaff Fire. More than 34,000 residents were evacuated in June of that year.
What’s more, so much of Colorado’s forests have been killed by pine beetles, leaving even more dry tinder ready to go up in flames today.
Water officials are already worrying about what the 2018 snowpack will mean for water supplies this year. Snow depths in southwestern Colorado are 22% of normal, the upper Colorado River Basin is 65% of normal and the Arkansas River Basin is at 49% of normal. The Platte River Basin, which serves the majority of the Denver metro area with water, is well off normal as well.
What this means for summer water supplies remains to be seen, but officials are already stockpiling water as they can, filling mountain reservoirs and setting aside supplies in anticipation of a dry year. If what happened during Colorado’s last extended drought is any indication, though, water use restrictions were implemented statewide.
Finally, as odd as it may seem in a drought year, floods can also become more deadly during drought. As seen recently in the mudslides that have ravaged Southern California, vegetation helps maintain ground cover and act as a barrier to flood damage in mountainous areas, including Colorado. When fires tear through and destroy much of this vegetation, as happened in California last summer, there is nothing left to keep the ground from sliding and floodwaters from running free. It’s open season for flooding and actually makes flood worse than they would otherwise be.