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Cattle graze on pasture in southwest Kansas. (Journal photo by Kylene Scott.)

Becky Bollinger, Colorado’s assistant climatologist, said she feels like a broken record when discussing the drought and limited rainfall in her state.

Bollinger was a presenter for a June 25 webinar presented by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Integrated Drought Information System and National Weather Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Drought Mitigation Center and the American Association of State Climatologists.

There is widespread drought in the 4 Corners area of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. Much of the area is rated in a D3 (extreme drought) or D4 (exceptional drought), according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

“These are drought categories that are very rare—less than a 5th percentile frequency of occurrence,” she said. “So when you see that D4 category, we’re talking a one in 50, maybe one in 100-year event drought.”

She noted the D4 category occupies about 7 percent of the entire southwest region, and most of this region is in some sort of drought from D1 to D4 rating. Since May there really haven’t been many changes in the drought status across this region.

It’s taken the drought some time to develop and evolve. Bollinger said since this time last year there have been mostly abnormally dry conditions over the southwest region. Then, a lack of a good, strong monsoon season late last summer into fall helped this expansion.

“By the time we got to January, we were starting to see affects of a snow drought throughout the higher elevations of the southwest and that’s when we were at our D2 severe drought and introduced the D3 extreme drought,” she said. “And it has been increasing ever since then. But it has kind of flat lined here in the last month.”

Dry and hot

There are a couple of variables of interest in addition to precipitation and temperatures, Bollinger said. Across the southwest, from Oct. 1 to May 31 records for warm temperatures were set. In June, temperatures reached record highs across the region. In Colorado specifically, there were more 90-degree days in early June than normal.

Meanhwile, it was record dry in southern Arizona and southwest New Mexico while the northern part of the region was just a little wetter. June was much of the same, Bollinger said.

“I feel like I’m sounding like a broken record, but we’ve seen a lot of the warmer than average temperatures continue for most of this region,” she said. “And the reason that warmer than average temperatures are going to be so important, in the region in wintertime it means your not going to be accumulating that snow pack that you really need to build up the water supply when we get to the summer.”

The warmer than average temperatures increase the amount of evaporative losses, which worsens the dry conditions, she added.

“When there is water it’s going to be that much quicker evaporate—which just worsens any dry conditions that you have,” she said.

The precipitation departure from average for June didn’t look too bad as it was mostly hovering near normal ranges.

“We haven’t seen enough precipitation to improve conditions widespread,” Bollinger said. “And it stayed dry, but not so dry to have widespread deterioration in drought conditions.”

Dry conditions have significantly pushed the wildfire threat. Several fires in Colorado and New Mexico are getting closer to containment as there have been some beneficial rains the last month.

“Some rains have been able to slow the spread a little bit. But these rains aren’t stopping these fires from occurring,” she said.

Bollinger said this is a more active fire season than normal, largely attributed to the drought conditions. When the monsoon rains do come, it’s also causing an increased risk for flooding.

“The fires are changing vegetation, because it’s creating a repellant layer so the water can’t infiltrate the soils at all and all of it runs off,” Bollinger said. “That is something to be aware of and to share information with people you know when fires have been put out because this will be a concern.” 

Tough on ranchers

Bollinger said the extreme conditions have taken a toll on farmers and ranchers particularly in southeast Colorado.

“We don’t have precipitation. We haven’t had precipitation in a long time on these dry land fields and native grasslands. Which means there’s no food for cattle. Drought means there’s no water for cattle, especially when ponds are drying up.”

Ranchers are having to haul hay and water to cattle already in all the 4 Corners states.

“We’ve also heard many impacts of liquidating or culling of herds,” she said. “The ecosystem has been starved for a long time with an occasional dollar menu cheeseburger thrown to it.”

The small rain events in some of the areas of the southwest aren’t really making a dent in things. It’s just been dry for too long, she said.

Regional outlook

“How do we get back to normal?” she said.

Bollinger said the Climate Prediction Center’s outlook for July/August/September time period puts a bull’s-eye right over the 4 Corners region with a “slightly increased chance of above average precipitation.”

“The climate prediction center is seeing something there that’s saying they think that the monsoon may be better than average,” she said.

Bollinger believes it’s going to be hard to get back to average.

“If the drought is there you’re going to have to hold on to it for a little longer now when we look forward to July,” she said.

July is typically when monsoons start in the southwest and a large portion of the annual precipitation will fall in a typical August.

“These are the months that provide a better opportunity to start chipping away at drought if we have a normal year,” Bollinger said.

She doesn’t see things getting to average either during this water year. But there is hope. The CPC issued an El Niño watch and that means they’re seeing conditions pointing towards the fall for an El Niño event.

“As we progress into the fall and towards the winter, there’s a greater than 50 percent chance that we will be in an El Niño and that it is possible to be at a moderate strength El Niño during the fall and winter,” Bollinger said.

For more information about the webinar or drought visit www.drought.gov/drought/.

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or kscott@hpj.com.

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