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Colorado declares drought emergency for Western Slope

State monitors 21 counties, including La Plata County
Colorado drought conditions as of July 1, 2021, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. (Courtesy of U.S. Drought Monitor)

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis declared a drought emergency Wednesday for La Plata County and 20 other counties on the Western Slope.

The declaration applies to counties experiencing severe, extreme or exceptional drought conditions, including the five-county region in Southwest Colorado. In response, Polis directed several state task forces to monitor the area and gather input about urgent, unmet needs.

“While Colorado can face a range of shortages across the state every year, the cumulative impacts of drought stress our landscapes, reservoir storage, wildfire risks and capacity of many water-dependent economies to rebound from previous year impacts and debts,” according to a news release from the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

The most recent water year, which runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, was the 12th warmest on record in Colorado since 1895 and saw record-breaking fires around the state. It was the third driest water year, trailing 2002, the driest year, and 2018, the second driest year, according to the conservation board.

The state has a three-phase response plan for severe drought.

In June 2020, the state activated “Phase 2” of its drought mitigation and response plan for 40 counties. By September, Phase 2 was extended to all 64 counties.

In Phase 2, the state’s task forces make impact assessments and mitigation recommendations, according to the Colorado Drought Response Plan.

The entire state entered Phase 3, the highest phase, in late November. In that phase, the full drought response plan is activated, with more task forces, resource allocation for unmet needs and a possible request for a presidential drought declaration.

While spring rains brought relief to counties east of the continental divide, the Western Slope saw a deepening drought and increased fire danger. The 21 western counties remained in Phase 3.

Phase 3 also advises the governor to declare a drought emergency, which Polis did Wednesday.

The Drought Response Plan and supporting task forces will remain activated, assessing conditions and recommending mitigation measures, until statewide conditions significantly improve, according to the conservation board.

Drought is a normal, recurrent feature of Colorado’s climate. Short duration drought, defined by the three-month standardized precipitation index, occurs somewhere in Colorado in nearly nine out of every 10 years.

Annual precipitation in Colorado averages 17 inches statewide, and its semi-arid climate means water availability is a consistent concern, according to the conservation board website.

Severe, widespread, multi-year droughts – like the one affecting the Western Slope – are less common.

Since 1893, Colorado has experienced six droughts that are widely considered “severe.” These droughts affected most of the state, involved record-breaking dry spells and/or lasted for multiple years.

Without adequate mitigation and response, drought can be destructive, according to the board’s website.

“We continue to work with our neighboring states to implement interstate agreements and consider additional potential solutions,” the conservation board news release said.


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