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Four Corners drought goes beyond extreme; no relief in sight

Conditions are worst in Four Corners and panhandles

The Four Corners drought has reached a more critical level, and as the wildfire threat heightens, forecasters say there is little hope for relief this summer.

The drought is rooted in a dry spell that began in October and reaches from southern California to central Kansas. Conditions are even worse in the Four Corners, where Montezuma and La Plata counties have warranted the description “exceptional drought.”

Brad Rippey, a meteorologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said the conditions that arise for an “exceptional drought” are considered a 1-in-50-year chance.

“It’s pretty significant in the context of history,” Rippey said.

He authored the U.S. Drought Monitor, a partnership between the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It ranks drought conditions on five levels ranging from “abnormally dry to “exceptional drought.”

Rippey blamed the current conditions on a dry winter and early spring.

“Winter was pretty much a disaster for the Four Corners,” he said.

In the Cortez area, National Weather Service forecaster Matt Aleksa said only 1.6 inches of precipitation has fallen since Jan. 1. That’s 2.4 inches less than the 4 inches the county normally receives by this time of year. Last year, the area accumulated 4.07 inches of precipitation by mid-April. Meteorologist intern James Fowler added that Cortez also hit record high temperatures four times this year. Temperatures on Jan. 1 reached 57 degrees, beating the record of 54 degrees, and Jan. 10 beat the record of 59 degrees with a high of 61. On Jan. 20 and Feb. 2, the temperatures were tied with the highest temperatures ever recorded on those dates – 60 and 61 degrees, respectively.

“The proverbial spigot shut off,” said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. “Drought isn’t necessarily a signal for wildfires, but it can exacerbate the conditions that do take place.”

The drought has already resulted in fire bans and a lower expectations for irrigators.

A Dolores Basin snowpack that came in at half its normal level means McPhee Reservoir will not fill to capacity, and farmers may receive 20 percent less water this season. The Dolores Water Conservancy District estimates that full-service irrigators will have 17 inches of water per acre available for their crops, down from 22 inches per acre when McPhee is full.

The carryover storage of 125,500 acre-feet – water left in the reservoir from last winter’s above-average snowpack – is only helping to ease the pain.

A fire ban went into effect April 16 in Montezuma County, where several brush fires have signaled an early and dangerous fire season.

Durango Fire Protection District Chief Hal Doughty said Tuesday all the fire chiefs in La Plata County requested the county enter a Stage 1 fire restriction classification, which would put a ban on controlled burns (except on agricultural lands) and campfires in certain areas, as well as other measures. La Plata County commissioners are expected to vote on the Stage 1 fire restrictions next week.

And it doesn’t look like any precipitation is on the horizon.

A long-term U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook map released April 19 predicts drought conditions will persist at least until July 31.

Aleksa said the short-term outlook for Montezuma County remains bleak, with lower-than-normal precipitation and higher-than-normal temperatures through June. But he offered a glimmer of hope, saying that some climate models predict a monsoon will carry heavy precipitation into the area starting in July.

The Associated Press, Journal reporter Stephanie Alderton and Durango Herald reporter Jonathan Romeo contributed to this article.

Apr 13, 2018
McPhee farmers face shortages after dry winter