How hot is it? It’s so hot, one old joke goes, ‘I saw the devil at Wal-Mart buying an air conditioner.’ But this summer heat is no laughing matter to southern and southeastern Colorado farmers and ranchers or state and federal fire fighters who might be called into action if there’s a high country lightning strike.
The heat along with an absence of moisture has caused a drought, creating potential economic disaster for agriculture and extreme fire risk for hundreds of thousands of acres of state forest lands. Most of the southern part of Colorado, said National Weather Service meteorologist Mark Wankowski, is “in extreme drought.”
What makes this drought extreme is that rainfall amounts have been well below normal since last summer and temperatures at record highs. “It takes a long time to get into drought and a long time to get out,” said the veteran weather watcher. He is not optimistic that things will change. “It probably won’t happen.”
Summertime heat should come as no surprise. But rainfalls measurements, to date, have shocked those who most depend upon it. The bottom part of Colorado---from Kansas to Utah---has a rainfall deficit of “two to five inches,” said Wankowski.
Sticking a pin in a state map will almost assure it landing in a drought-stricken area, said Wankowski. Alamosa’s rain totals since the end of June are less than an inch. Colorado Springs moisture levels are 3.5 inches below normal; Pueblo’s just slightly more at 3.7. Eads, in southeastern Colorado is nearly five inches below normal.
While sky watchers look for thunderheads and hope for rain, on the ground the mercury just continues to rise. Alamosa checks in with temperatures nearly five degrees above normal levels. Colorado Springs heat registers as the ninth highest on record. And Pueblo checks in at its sixth warmest summer since records began being kept.
While Colorado had a normal to above normal snowfall last winter, springtime temperatures and prolonged heat melted it too fast. The moisture sunk into the soil and not into the tributaries that carry it to where it does the most good.
Colorado has endured drought---even prolonged droughts---before and this season’s won’t be the last. One of the worst droughts on record occurred in the mid-70’s when lack of moisture became so serious that the state resorted to cloud seeding to hasten rainfall. It didn’t work. Farmers and ranchers took a big hit and, so too, did the ski industry. Wankowski also said the state suffered serious drought in 2002 and 2012.
But this drought is different than previous versions. This one is the first in the Covid-19 era and fire planners aren’t quite what role it will play. Firefighters work shoulder to shoulder as they try and control fire. When they rest, they’re also in close proximity. The areas where they rest could conceivably turn into what has been dubbed ‘super spreaders.’ In theory, hundreds of firefighters could become victims.
As Wankowski explained, droughts don’t suddenly end. A deluge across the plains or in the high country will certainly help current conditions. But they won’t solve the problem. What’s worse is the forecast for next winter and summer. “We’re calling for La Niῆa this year,” he said. It’s a weather pattern that means less moisture, not more.
If nothing changes, and it appears unlikely that regular rainfall is in this summer’s forecast, it could mean higher prices at the supermarket next fall and winter for produce and meat.