« Return to this article

Know the West

The End is nigh (or at least it's really dry)


This won’t be news to most of you fair readers, but just in case you’ve been paying attention to real problems and have missed it: The End is nigh! That’s right, the world’s end is just weeks away. After all, what else could it mean that the Mayan calendar ends on that day? Nothing, except that maybe it’s time for a new calendar. So, just give it up. Kiss the loved ones goodbye, make your peace with your Creator, and accept it that you will not find out what happens on the next season of Downton Abbey. And then turn your thoughts, as I have, to the great philosophical question of our time: Should I bother buying Christmas presents?

Okay, now on to much more optimistic news: We’re doomed. Or at least our waterways and ski areas seem to be. With the 2013 water year (Oct. 1 - Sept. 30) now about one-fifth of the way over, much of the West is bone dry, particularly the Upper Colorado watershed. Here in southwestern Colorado, we’ve received a total of just 1.2 inches of precipitation since Oct. 1, and the snowpack is 40 percent of average. The local ski area is open, but with just one lift running and skiing on mostly man-made snow. This would be bad news at any time, but with the whole Mayan thing going on this year, plus the fact that the 2012 water year was ridiculously  dry (though not without precedent), well, it’s not good. If the big storms don’t come, and I mean big, what will happen to the streams that are already running way below average?

More signs that the Mayans are right and apocalypse is upon us drought-related news: As of Dec. 3, the Fern Lake Fire in and around Rocky Mountain National Park had grown to more than 4,000 acres, evacuations were ordered for area residents (a touch of snow had calmed it down by Dec. 11). In Southwestern Colorado, the annual Kokanee salmon run was virtually nonexistent, and the Animas River ran lower in November than ever before. In Summit County, Colorado -- that's serious ski country -- the Blue River has run dry in places, and the smell of dead fish wafts through town. And hay theft was rampant this summer.

But don’t take it from me. Here are some nifty charts and graphs to put a little cheer into your end-of-the-world, holiday season! The bottom three graphs are from water-data.com, a wonderful site for all you water nerds out there. Happy reading.

Uhh, yeah. It's dry out there.

And it will stay that way, at least until the end of February, if the forecaster folks know what they're talking about.

Snowpack above lake powell

Another view, from a Lake Powell/Upper Colorado Basin-centric perspective. Note that 2012 started out okay, then became dismal. This year doesn't even have that going for it. Of course, 2011 started out dismally, then went wacky, ending up as a record wet year. So there's hope. Perhaps.

Inflows to Lake Powell by year

That's inflows to Lake Powell. Notice that 2012, while unusually dry, was not by any means unprecedented. And this graph doesn't even go back to the 1950s, which was one of the driest years on record in this region.

This is an alarming graph, in that it shows how bad 2012 was for the Upper Colorado River Basin and for Lake Powell. There was simply no spring runoff, and no fall hurricane residue, either. That means Lake Powell is starting this water year even lower than usual.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News.