May was the driest in at least 51 years
June 4, 2002
Mother Nature added insult to injury by piling the driest May in at least 51 years onto the lowest snowpack in a quarter century.
It adds up to a very severe drought.
The Aspen water plant, which tracks data for the National Weather Service, unofficially recorded .21 inches of precipitation for the month.
DayWeather Inc., which supplies forecasts and tracks weather data for The Aspen Times, recorded .35 inches of precipitation for the month.
Either figure represents the lowest precipitation amount for May since records were first kept at the Aspen water plant by former plant manager Jim Markalunas in 1951.
“Anyone who’s walking in the hills can tell you how dry it is,” said Markalunas, who has continued to track weather data since his retirement.
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The previous record for dry conditions in May was 0.44 inches in both 1958 and 1970, according to records from the water plant.
In the drought year of 1977 only 0.46 inches of precipitation fell during the month. The drought year of 1980 brought only 0.66 inches of precipitation for the month.
On the other end of the spectrum, 5.4 inches of precipitation from rain and snow fell in May 1995 – the year that winter wouldn’t stop.
The average amount of precipitation for the month since 1951 is 1.85 inches.
May’s dry conditions continue a trend that started last fall. The total rain and snow recorded at the 10,400-foot level on Independence Pass was only 59 percent of average as of yesterday, according to the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service. The NRCS has a computerized site to measure precipitation.
In addition, the snowpack throughout the Roaring Fork River basin was only about two-thirds of normal this year, and it disappeared quicker than usual due to high spring temperatures.
The Roaring Fork Valley’s streamflow forecast is for “extremely below average” levels, according to the NRCS. Some sections of southwestern Colorado are facing “exceptionally below average” projections.
The low snowpack means rivers and streams will reach peak runoff earlier than usual and at levels much lower than usual.
A gauging station maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey near Difficult Campground showed that the Roaring Fork River hit a high for the season, thus far, of about 100 cubic feet per second around midnight May 31.
That was about half of what it typically is at that time of year. However, with the snowpack all but gone, it may be the highest point the river reaches east of Aspen this year.
Peak runoff usually doesn’t occur until the third week of June.