Feds add more drought designations in Colorado as state snowpack sits at 66% of normal

DENVER – The U.S. Department of Agriculture added drought designations to four more Colorado counties this week, as half of the state is now experiencing severe drought, and as more than 90 percent of the state remains abnormally dry.

Six southeastern Colorado now have been designated with primary drought declarations, and 11 other counties in southern Colorado have contiguous drought designations for this year, according to the USDA’s Farm Service Agency.

The latest snowpack data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service shows the state’s snowpack is at just 66 percent of normal as of Friday, and that it could have already peaked, despite the normal snowpack peak coming on April 9, on average.

It also shows that the snowpack is at just 60 percent of the level it was at on the same day last year, and that it is about in line with where it was at in 2015, when the state was hit by among the worst wildfire seasons in recent years.

The state would need over 14,000 percent of its normal precipitation now to reach normal peak levels, according to the data.

Nearly 24 percent of the state is under extreme drought conditions, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor data. The worst drought in Colorado is seen in the southern and southwest portions of the state.

But the Drought Monitor shows that 90 percent of the state is abnormally dry -- up from the beginning of last month; more than three-quarters of Colorado is experiencing moderate drought, and about half is under severe drought conditions. To the east, Kansas is experiencing slightly worse conditions than Colorado.

The low snowpack and snow-water equivalents are causing some concerns about water for the springs and summer months, as about 80 percent of the state’s water is used for agricultural purposes and irrigation.

State and local officials closely monitoring

Brian Domonkos, of the USDA's Natural Resource Conservations Service - Colorado Snow Survey Program, says that's not good news.

"We're looking at potential water shortages," he said. "The Arkansas, the upper Rio Grande, combined San Miguel and San Juan basins, as well as the Gunnison Basin. Those basins are short on snow. They're at, or very near, record low snowpack."

Domonkos says the low snowpack is bad news for rivers and streams.

"There are some stream forecasts at, or below, 30 percent of normal – mainly in the southern half of the state," he said

Domonkos added that northern Colorado is in much better shape.

He said snowpack in the northern half of Colorado is near 80 percent of normal, and that stream forecasts are about 80 to 100 percent of normal.

Denver Water spokesman Jose Salas said 90 percent of the utility's water is stored in the south end of the system.

"Because there will be more runoff from the north end, which is faring much better, we'll start using more water from that end than usual,” he told Denver7.

Salas said Denver Water is making operational changes to balance out the supply system for the future.  

He said this year's imbalance underscores the need to expand Gross Reservoir, which is Denver water's major storage system on the north end of the system. 

Salas told Denver7 that reservoirs are in good shape right now, but they may not fill completely this summer.

He said they're keeping tabs on snowpack and run-off.

Salas also said it's too early for customers to turn on their irrigation systems.

Denver7's Lance Hernandez contributed to this report.

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