Steamboat Springs Colorado may be facing one of the worst droughts in recent memory, causing concern for firefighters as well as those in farming and ranching in Northwest Colorado.
March ended as the seventh consecutive month with below-average precipitation statewide and on April 1, snowpack in the High Country was at a 25-year low.
Furthermore, stream-flow forecasts in the state are running 50 percent to 70 percent of normal for the basins of the Yampa, South Platte, Arkansas and Colorado rivers. Less than 50 percent of normal is expected for the San Juan, Rio Grande, Animas, Dolores, San Miguel, Gunnison, North Platte and upper South Platte river basins.
If these conditions continue through summer, groundwater in the state could be at a minimum.
"For the general state of Colorado, we have not seen anything this dry, or widespread, since the 1970s," said Nolan Doesken of the Colorado Climate Center.
Recently, several southern basins including the Rio Grande, San Juan and Dolores were declared the driest they have been in 100 years. Agricultural producers there are being told not to expect irrigation water.
It's a surprise blow after most regions of the state were spoiled by above-average wet conditions through most of the 1980s and 1990s.
The tide began showing signs of turning about four years ago, when snowpack levels began a four-year run of below-average marks. That makes this summer's projected epic drought even more concerning, Doesken said.
During consecutive dry years, reservoirs and wells around the state don't recover.
"Without a doubt, several years in a row makes the situation much worse," he said.
In Northwest Colorado, the low snowpack 45 percent of average on April 17 is being accompanied by signs of a dry summer.
Marsha Daughenbaugh of the Farm Service Agency in Steamboat Springs said ranchers from around Northwest Colorado already are reporting problems with lack of runoff and dry ground. That's of particular concern, because the agricultural community is coming off two years of low hay yields. A third year could be crippling.
To help, the Farm Service Agency already has offered special insurance for ranchers who fear losses due to drought. Daughenbaugh said a good many people have shown interest.
Meanwhile, Routt County Emergency Manager Chuck Vale said the conditions he has seen this spring make wildfire danger high.
"We went from snowdrifts to dry ground," he said. "There was no mud."
Vale said the Wildland Fire Council worked hard this winter, meeting nine times to forge an agreement between local fire districts on how to cover wildfires. A deal is expected to be signed in a month.
"We will be as prepared as we can be," Vale said.
The U.S. Forest Service also has a bad fire season on its mind.
"If we don't get a lot of moisture this spring, we realize it could be a high risk," Forest Service spokeswoman Diann Pipher said.
Thanks to federal funding, the elite wildfire fighting crew Hot Shots has been stationed in Craig and the firefighting staff at the Hahns Peak/Bears Ears District in Steamboat has increased.
Fire officials said the last three serious wildfire seasons all followed dry winters 1994, 1996 and 2000.
"It just exacerbates the problem with summer drought," National Weather Service senior forecaster Chris Cuoco said.
Water content in vegetation is lower than normal in low snowpack years, which makes forests more flammable.
While the stage is set for a major drought in Colorado, nothing is certain. Drought in the summer will depend mostly on the amount of precipitation, which can't be predicted.
There is no evidence to suggest a dry winter means a dry summer will follow, Cuoco said.