ASPEN - The drought of 2012 - one of the worst in modern Colorado history - doesn't appear to be easing.
Technically the 2012 water year is over. Water experts start tracking a water year on Oct. 1 because that's the month that snowpack usually starts building in Colorado's mountains. After two months, the 2013 water year is picking up where 2012 left off.
The snowpack at Independence Pass east of Aspen is at 40 percent of average for Nov. 30, according to data from an automated snow-measurement site maintained by the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service.
For the Roaring Fork River basin as a whole - which engulfs 1,451 square miles, including the Fryingpan and Crystal river watersheds - the snowpack is at 43 percent.
To put the dry fall into perspective, the Roaring Fork Conservancy reported Thursday that Schofield Pass has the beefiest snowpack in the basin right now, but it's only half of what it was in 2002 - another major drought year.
"Drought conditions still persist," said the conservancy, a nonprofit organization that works on water quantity and quality issues in the Roaring Fork Valley.
"A lot of times people think a drought is over after summer and fall," said Sharon Clarke, land and water conservation specialist with the Roaring Fork Conservancy. The effects of drought aren't as visible under winter snow and when irrigation isn't necessary. Nevertheless, the drought is hurting the rivers and streams of the valley right now, she said.
The Roaring Fork River near Aspen was flowing at 18 cubic feet per second on Thursday. The median flow for that date is 29 cfs. An in-stream flow of 32 cfs is advised for river health.
Water experts caution that while low streamflows are significant right now, "the real whopper will be if we get another year like 2012," said Chelsea Congdon, a founder of Friends of Rivers and Renewables, a project started by Public Counsel of the Rockies in Aspen. The purpose of the project is to draw awareness to water issues in the valley.
Congdon said the spring and summer streamflows and irrigation amounts depend on snowmelt. Last year, the Roaring Fork River basin had less than half its typical snowpack. If it fails to build again this year, the water shortage would obviously be exacerbated.
The 2012 water year was brutal. Winter was essentially compressed into February. The snow quit falling in March, and the temperature soared. April, May and June were all warmer and drier than average. The effects were wide-ranging. Some ranchers with junior water rights on historic ditches couldn't irrigate. Hay crops were stunted for lack of rain. The rafting season provided only a hint of a normal year. Fish populations were stressed by low streamflows and high temperatures. The insects they feed on were likely reduced. Wetlands along rivers and streams were significantly drier.
All of Pitkin County is considered in severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Large parts of the state are in extreme drought, and part of the eastern plains is considered in exceptional drought.
"The main message of 2012 is that everyone from irrigator to municipalities all got a wake-up call to remind us how dependent we are on healthy flows in our rivers," Congdon said. We could be looking at a future where the rivers and other water supplies can't meet the demand, she said.
The Roaring Fork and Crystal Rivers were reduced to trickles at times last summer.
The flow on the Roaring Fork River near Aspen was at 50 cfs on Aug. 12. The historical median was 69 cfs.
The Roaring Fork River above the confluence with the Fryingpan River was at 128 cfs on Aug. 12 compared with a historical median flow of 525 cfs.
The Crystal River felt the ravages of the drought the worst. It was at 20 cfs on Aug. 12, while the historical median flow is 240 cfs.
Eric Kuhn, executive director of the Colorado River District, said 2012 was the third-driest year in at least the past 40 years as far as water from the upper Colorado River basin reaching Lake Powell. The driest was 2002; 1977 was the second driest.
The drought didn't strike so severely this year because reservoirs were in good shape at the start because of a very wet 2011. In 2002, conditions were severe because most of 2001 was also dry, Kuhn said.
Recovery from drought also came about by September 2002.
"Now we're not in recovery," Kuhn said.
Precipitation in western Colorado has been below average for 10 months this year. It's only been above average for one month, in July. And there's cause for concern to start the winter, Kuhn said. While scattered snow showers are expected on some days over the next week, no major storm systems appear to be developing. If western Colorado reaches mid- to late-December with a lower-than-average snowpack, it would be difficult though not impossible to catch up, Kuhn said.
"I'm actually more concerned right now about 2013 than about 2012," Kuhn said.
Bart Miller, water program director at Western Resource Advocates, said two really dry years in one decade - 2002 and 2012 - should serve as a important wake-up call that long-term drought poses a real danger. Some scientists contend that long-duration droughts could become the norm because of climate change.
"One-hundred-year droughts might become one in 50 (years) or one in 40," Miller said.
He said that means the following are things to think about: Everyone should be concerned about drought even if they don't think they are directly affected, the prospects of drought will force water planners to do more long-range planning - beyond enforcing restrictions on watering lawns, cities will have to implement broader water-conservation practices, and municipal interests will have to figure out how to better share limited water supplies with agriculture.
Miller will give a presentation at Hallam Lake in Aspen Monday at 7:30 p.m. on the options Colorado has to deal with growing demand on water from energy production, agriculture and urban sprawl in the era of climate change.
If there is any silver lining in droughts, it's that they increase the public's awareness of water issues, Clarke said.
"The hard thing is what people can do about it," she said.
The conservancy enlisted volunteers last summer to help in a program called Hot Spots for Trout. They measured temperatures at various places to sound the alarm for high temperatures that could be detrimental to trout.
Friends of Rivers and Renewables also is promoting education and awareness of water and drought issues. One initiative is to lobby for placement of more water-flow gauges on rivers and streams, particularly the Roaring Fork. If you collect additional information, Congdon said, you are better prepared to make decision.
More information about the Roaring Fork Conservancy's programs can be found at www.roaringfork.org/sitepages/pid404.php.
More about Friends of Rivers and Renewables can be found at http://forr.us.