As Drought Persists in the West, Time to Prepare for Summer Shortages

River flows dependent on Colorado Rocky Mountain snowpack are diminished by dust on snow (shown here in 2009) as well as by winter drought. Credit: NASA

Drought, drought, and more drought seems to be what’s in store for most river basins in the West, including the Colorado, the lifeline for 30 million people.

Back in late November, I wrote about how NOAA’s seasonal drought outlook for mid-November to late February indicated the persistence of dryness in most of the Colorado River Basin.  Unfortunately, not only did those projections largely pan out, but NOAA’s new outlook, for February 21 to May 31 projects more of the same.

The thin snowpack in the Rocky Mountains has already led the prime ski resort towns of Vail and Aspen to declare “severe drought” emergencies.

But it’s not just the ski industry that needs to worry. If the drought continues into spring, there will be mounting threats of fire, water shortages, fish die-offs, and economic losses to river-based recreation businesses.

The likelihood of water shortages looms large. As of February 1, Colorado’s snowpack statewide was at 72 percent of normal.  While that might not sound terrible, this year’s below-average snows come on the heels of last year’s drought and paltry snows.

So going into this year’s winter season, lakes and reservoirs were already well below normal capacity.  Statewide, Colorado’s reservoir storage stood at 70 percent of average on February 1.

Below-normal snowpack will also translate into low flows for rivers and streams fed by the snowpack’s meltwater.  The forecast is for low flows in all the major river basins in Colorado.

Last year, the Yampa  – a crucial headwater river in the Colorado Basin and the centerpiece of the tourist town of Steamboat Springs – suffered terribly from the drought.  Only an innovative lease of water, orchestrated by the Denver-based Colorado Water Trust with the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, saved the river and its native and recreational fishing populations from crashing.

(Read the story of how the Yampa and its dependents survived the 2012 drought, and watch a video that tells this story.)

More fire, too, could lie ahead if dry conditions persist. And as the New York Times reported Friday, if the “sequester” goes into effect, as seems increasingly likely with each passing day, the U.S. Forest Service will lose $134 million for its Wildland Fire Management program. That means dead trees, dry brush and other fire-starting materials will not be removed, increasing fire risks on up to 200,000 acres of forestland.

That would be worrisome even in a normal year, but in a severe drought it could prove calamitous.

Besides risks to life and property, forest fires often cause more water problems.  When rains do finally come, they rush down burned out hillsides, carrying heavy loads of charred vegetation and sediment no longer held in place by living trees.  Rivers and downstream drinking water reservoirs fill with debris, taxing water treatment systems and upping water costs.

In recent years, Denver and Santa Fe have partnered with the Forest Service to work to fire-proof and protect the watersheds that supply their drinking water, so as to avoid this kind of expensive fire-related damage.

There’s still a possibility that big snows will come in late February and March.  But it’s not too soon for water managers, conservation groups, farmers, government officials and others to start planning for another dry year – and arranging for innovative ways, like the Yampa drought lease, to keep rivers healthy during the dry spell.

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society. She is the author of several acclaimed books, including the award-winning Last Oasis, a Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment, and one of the “Scientific American 50.” She is co-creator of Change the Course, the national freshwater restoration campaign being piloted in the Colorado River Basin.

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and author of Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity. From 2009-2015, she served as Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society. Sandra is also co-creator of Change the Course, the national water stewardship initiative awarded the 2017 US Water Prize for restoring billions of gallons of water to depleted rivers and wetlands. The recipient of several honorary degrees, she works to bridge science, policy, and practice to promote innovative ways of securing water to meet both human and ecosystem needs.