|With a skiff of snow on the ground this week, and not much promise currently for more to come, concerns mount regarding moisture content available to the agricultural health of the Valley. In a statement last week, the National Weather Service’s drought monitoring service issued a statement under the heading “Moderate to Severe Drought Expands Across Southern Colorado.”
Among other things, the release noted “After a relatively wet late Summer and early Fall, especially across southeastern Colorado, a very warm and dry late Fall and early Winter has brought on moderate to severe drought conditions to much of the area…The latest US Drought Monitor has introduced severe drought conditions to Mineral County, as well as extreme southwestern portions of Saguache County, Western portions of Rio Grande County and extreme northwestern portions of Conejos County.
“Moderate drought conditions have expanded across most of the rest of south central and southeast Colorado including the rest of Saguache, Rio Grande and Conejos counties, as well as Alamosa County, Custer County and Costilla County.” Moderate drought continues for the remaining counties in the region, including El Paso, Fremont, and Huerfano.
SNOTEL data from South Colony at 10,800 feet elevation indicates that the snow water equivalency as of last Tuesday was 2.2 inches, far below the 30 year median on that date of 9.6 inches. This data, along with other collecting points along the Arkansas headwaters, contribute to the estimates of soil moisture in the area running well below average percentiles.
Local rancher Mike Shields points out that “‘Drought’ is one of the worst words to hear and one of the worst things that can happen in agriculture; we cannot do without water.” Shields, like other ranchers in the Valley, keeps his eyes on weather patterns and predictions, and hopes that “we still have time to pull out of this with a big snow.” The current La Nina upper air flow, though weak, continues to affect our high desert area with dryness; he also hopes that the expected dramatic end to this pattern around March 1 comes to pass. “We’ll be in a lot of trouble,” Shields notes, “if that snow does not come in the spring…There’s not much we can do in anticipation; you don’t really ‘manage’ a drought…we hang on and survive.”
Kyle Mozley, Pueblo based National Weather Service meteorologist, confirmed what Shields is looking towards for relief. “Yes, we’re in the La Nina pattern,” Mozley says, “which favors the central and northern mountains here; we’re on the drier side of the effect.” He states that the pattern is peaking right now, and has not been a strong event. What has been affecting the area though has been Artic air oscillations, creating a northwesterly flow that “shadows out our southern mountains.” However, just as Shields and other ranchers anticipate, the La Nina impact should be breaking down in March and April, creating a more neutral phase in weather patterns. “We should do a little bit better,” Mozley claims, “but we are so far behind we don’t know how much we need to make up.” The longer range view is that there are better chances for the “make up” in the spring months, but the details of that are too far out for any predictability right now. “The pattern does tend to favor precipitation though,” Mozley assures us.
Nonetheless, the current drop off in snow and rainfall, in some nearby areas of as much as to only 10 to 20 percent of average snow water equivalency available, remains unsettling. Certainly this week’s snowfall, and perhaps the rains predicted for the coming weekend, are not enough to make a difference immediately. We in the Valley are most likely exactly in the same spot meteorologist Mozley is, when he laments, “Whether the spring snows fall sufficiently, whether it happens or not, simply remains to be seen.”
– W.A. Ewing