Drought tightens its grip on Aspen, Roaring Fork Valley in July

Roaring Fork Valley residents might have to resort to a rain dance if the current weather keeps up.

The hot, dry weather during July has resulted in high fire danger and low stream levels, and forecasters say little relief is in sight.

Aspen could only coax 1.17 inches of precipitation out of the clouds last month even though it rained 14 days, according to record keepers at the Aspen Treatment Water Plant. Normal rainfall for July is 1.74 inches.

For May, June and July, the water plant was down about three-quarters of an inch, or 16%, from the average of 4.85 inches. This year, 4.08 inches of precipitation fell.

Three wildfires have materialized in the region over the last week — a small one north of Ruedi Reservoir popped up over the weekend and was snuffed by Monday. Another fire erupted in steep hillsides west of Glenwood Springs on Wednesday and continued to hamper traffic on Interstate 70 on Thursday. The biggest regional wildfire is 18 miles north of Grand Junction. The Pine Gulch Fire had grown to nearly 12,000 acres as of Wednesday night.

Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Chief Scott Thompson said the fire danger is high and pushing into extreme in some terrain in the sprawling district that extends from El Jebel to Snowmass Village. Lightning or one act of carelessness by humans could spark a fire.

“At this point, I’m just holding my breath,” Thompson said.

The moisture level in live fuels isn’t as low as it was in July 2018 when the Lake Christine Fire broke out, he said. Therefore, he didn’t think greater restrictions will be put in place anytime soon.

Roaring Fork Fire Rescue sent one brush truck, specially fitted for wild land firefighting, and three firefighters over to help with the Grand Junction fire.

The latest U.S. Drought Monitor map released by the federal government on Thursday showed Pitkin County divided nearly evenly between severe drought on the lower elevation terrain in the western half, and moderate drought on the higher elevation lands on the eastern half.

Basalt, El Jebel, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs are all in the severe drought category.

The National Weather Service said no relief is in sight.

“Above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation have a better than average chance of sticking around through mid-August,” said the forecast from the NWS Grand Junction office. “Improvement to the drought and elevated fire danger conditions appear unlikely.”

The only area that might see rain in coming days is along the Continental Divide east of Aspen, the weather service said.

Basalt-based nonprofit Roaring Fork Conservancy said the weather is taking a toll on local rivers and streams. The Roaring Fork River near Aspen is running at 53.4 cubic feet per second. The mean for Thursday was 84 cfs. The Crystal River at Redstone was running at 101 cfs compared to a mean of 251.

Conditions are better on the Fryingpan River below Ruedi Reservoir. The holders of senior water rights on the Colorado River placed a “call” on water, which is requiring releases from the reservoir. That’s creating increased flows on the Fryingpan River and on the Roaring Fork River below the confluence.

The Fryingpan River was running at 208 cfs on Thursday, above the mean of 191.

“These higher flows provide a much-needed cooling effect in the downstream waters where water temperatures already reached 69 degree Fahrenheit in late July,” the conservancy reported.