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Hot, Dry Spring Leaves Roaring Fork Valley In Moderate Drought

via United States Drought Monitor

Some portions of Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield Counties are experiencing moderate drought because of hotter temperatures and below average precipitation in April and May. 

The U.S. Drought Monitor upgraded Aspen and some parts of Pitkin County from “abnormally dry” to “moderate drought,” the second of five levels of drought severity. 

In addition to abnormal temperature and precipitation conditions, the Aspen area entered the spring with below-average soil moisture. Drier soils reduce the amount of snowmelt that reaches streams.

"I don't think it's anything to be alarmed at, but it's something we're watching very closely."

Information on area drought status was presented to Aspen City Council this week. 

“I don’t think it’s anything to be alarmed at,” said Steve Hunter, utilities resource manager for the City of Aspen. “But it’s something we’re watching very closely, due to the fact that we had some of the hottest and driest April and May on record in the south, and we’re not far from that where we sit here in Aspen.”

Above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation also took a toll on the area’s snowpack. While the past winter left an average snowpack in the Roaring Fork Watershed, the heat and dryness have caused it to melt away quicker than usual, which could lead to limited water resources over the summer.

Credit via National Resources Conservation Service
This map shows streamflow forecasts. The Roaring Fork Watershed, in the yellow area, is projected to flow 70-89% below average.

Streamflows in the Roaring Fork Watershed are projected to run about 70-90% below average.

If drought conditions worsen, Hunter says the city of Aspen could introduce water-saving ordinances, but a lot could change to prevent that from happening.

“We could get a lot of moisture from the summer monsoons, which generally occur in this valley mid-July,” Hunter said. “And right now there are not a ton of indicators saying how strong those will be. So that’s a big unknown that could help us out, or hurt us.”

The northern part of the state is experiencing normal water conditions, but much of southern Colorado is undergoing either “severe” or “extreme” levels of drought. Gunnison County, directly to the south of Pitkin, is mostly in “severe” condition, one level above “moderate.”

Alex is KUNC's reporter covering the Colorado River Basin. He spent two years at Aspen Public Radio, mainly reporting on the resort economy, the environment and the COVID-19 pandemic. Before that, he covered the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery for KDLG in Dillingham, Alaska.