ASPEN - The Roaring Fork Valley's snowpack is significantly lower than at the same point in 2002, the last time the area was clobbered by a severe drought.
The water in the snowpack 10 miles east of Aspen was 8.6 inches Thursday, only 52 percent of the average between 1971 and 2000, the Natural Resources Conservation Service reported. On March 29, 2002, the snowpack was at 78.5 percent of average. The snowpack disappeared quickly that year because of high temperatures and dry soil conditions that persisted from 2001. The central mountains and much of Colorado were in the grip of a severe drought through half of July.
This year, the U.S. Drought Monitor, operated by the federal government, officially classifies the Aspen area as "abnormally dry." The center's outlook says more severe drought conditions could develop in Colorado in the next few months.
"It's looking horrid," said Sharon Clarke, a land- and water-conservation specialist with Roaring Fork Conservancy, a Basalt-based nonprofit that focuses on water quality and quantity issues in the valley. "I haven't seen anything that looks very hopeful."
Droughts are tough on the trout in the valley's Gold Medal rivers. Low streamflows result in a loss of fish habitat, loss of insects for fish to feed on and higher water temperatures, which stress fish, impair their swimming and may increase the risk of whirling disease, Clarke said.
The weather is an unknown factor for the summer, but the snowpack is the lowest since at least 1981, Clarke said, so it's a good bet that water levels in rivers and streams will be low.
"I think we're all hopeful that it starts dumping lots of snow," she said.
Clarke is writing a piece on drought and potential impacts for the conservancy's newsletter. She also will help guide discussion about the short- and long-term potential for drought during an April 12 meeting of the Roaring Fork Watershed Collaborative, a confederation of groups working on water issues.
The Colorado River District, a Glenwood Springs-based public water-policy agency, is urging water providers to come up with a contingency plan in case of drought. Reservoir operators, for example, can scale back releases in anticipation of less snowmelt this spring, said Eric Kuhn, general manager of the river district. Water providers can get customers thinking in advance of conservation. Property owners who are considering installing new sod and other landscaping that requires watering might want to consider delaying plans.
"I think it's not too early to talk about it now," Kuhn said about the possibility of drought.
Seventy-five to 80 percent of Colorado's water supply comes from snowmelt, so the low snowpack creates a big problem, Kuhn said, but in other ways the areas surrounding the Upper Colorado River basin are better off than in 2002. The moisture level in the soil is higher and reservoir levels are higher than in 2002 because the runoff was so abundant in 2011, Kuhn said. Reservoir levels and soil moisture were lower in 2002 because the previous year was also dry.
Streamflow forecasts, based on snowpack levels and weather forecasts, will be updated by federal agencies during the first week of April. The National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center says Colorado's mountains can expect continued warmer and drier weather over the next eight to 14 days, with only a small disturbance creating the chance of precipitation on Sunday and Monday.