Planning for drought while in one: Colorado is a model for the region


In the spring of 2002, Colorado temperatures were averaging four degrees above normal. Snowpack began disappearing at an alarming rate, and rain was scant. Then the fires started. The Hayman Fire, 215 square miles southwest of Denver, tore through nearly $200 million in firefighting costs alone. “(That summer) was hellacious,” remembers Reagan Waskom, co-chair of the state’s drought task force agricultural team. “So hot, so windy, so dry. It was all just kind of exploding." The 2002 drought, scientists later reported in the state drought plan, was, “based on studies of tree rings and archaeological evidence from aboriginal cultures… arguably the most severe in the recorded history of the state.” And the state was caught off-guard, scrambling to respond to a severe emergency.

Since then, Waskom says, Colorado has learned some lessons. This month, the state’s drought task force will finish revising its Drought Mitigation and Response Plan, which aims to reduce short- and long-term impacts of water shortages by planning ahead in all sectors. Beginning with the first major overhaul, which was in 2010, the massive plan has increasingly focused on proactive mitigation rather than just response. That means more weather forecasting and assessing which state assets and which counties are most vulnerable to future drought. Though there’s still plenty of work to be done, Colorado’s plan has become a model for other states in the region.

“Most states don’t do a comprehensive qualitative and quantitative analysis on vulnerability. They focus on the response plan, but they don’t tie all the pieces together,” says Taryn Finnessy, climate change specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board and lead coordinator of the plan. Filling gaps in climate data for various regions in the state, partnering with NOAA to create new tools to measure precipitation, and possible plans to name a drought “impact czar” are just a few examples of how Colorado has distinguished itself in the drought planning world. The state now also has a “toolbox” of guidelines and resources for municipalities and local water providers to draft their own plans, and a website where individuals can monitor water restrictions in their area.

Around the West, planning for drought has typically been low priority for states because it’s not seen as an emergency, or as the draft plan puts it, drought is “a slow motion disaster.”

“You have to look long and hard at FEMA’s website to figure out that (drought) is actually a natural disaster,” Finnessy says. Drought’s creeping onset differentiates it from disasters that have immediate, highly visible impacts – think fires, tornados and earthquakes. Despite its relatively low profile, drought is one of the most financially devastating curveballs nature (and climate change) can throw us.

Ranchers and farmers are often some of the hardest hit, and this year, Colorado ranchers sold off large numbers of cattle because of severe conditions. More than 310,000 acres of crops in the state could not be planted this spring because of the drought, and of the crops that were planted, about 570,000 acres failed – five times more than during the same time period last year.

Results of an agriculture vulnerability assessment in a draft of Colorado's Drought Mitigation and Response plan. Darker shading indicates more vulnerability.

Now, Waskom and other CSU researchers are helping the drought task force devise methods to improve soil’s ability to retain water and reduce potential for dust storms. Techniques that some agriculturalists already use, like no-till farming and leaving crop residue after harvesting to anchor the soil, are part of the plan. It also touts a massive list of non-agricultural initiatives – at various stages of implementation – for everything from snow banking, floodwater diversion storage and water recycling in hydraulic fracturing to enhancing wildlife habitat, requiring more drought mitigation in land use plans and encouraging interagency collaboration.

Despite the increasing interest in establishing state drought plans across the West, these weather patterns aren’t exactly an innovation of 21st century climate change. Droughts that rival the current one include the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and droughts of the ‘50s, ‘77, ’81, mid-90s and 2002. Colorado actually has a one-in-three chance of experiencing some amount of drought in any given year, and three-month droughts are expected to happen every nine years or so.

Yet the intensity and frequency of these dry spells are indeed increasing, making plans like Colorado’s, or any state’s, a moving target.

“These last few droughts we’ve come into so quickly and to such levels that it’s uncharted,” Waskom says. These are different beasts. The average citizen needs to know more about their footprint in Colorado ... the whole deal, of what it takes to live in an arid land.”

Governor John Hickenlooper partially activated the current drought task force in May 2011, and when severe conditions continued, he expanded it statewide in 2012. The Colorado Water Conservation Board will present the new plan to its own board this fall, and get approval from the Federal Emergency Management Agency as early as January 2014. Climatologists predict the current drought will persist in most places across the West at least through November, and beyond that – all we can do is plan for the worst.

Tay Wiles is HCN's online editor. Follow her @taywiles.

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