Drought Information

What is Drought?

In short, drought can be defined as a shortage of rainfall. Realistically, drought is significantly more complicated than that. Several factors besides precipitation affect drought, such as temperature, humidity, water demands, and overall climate conditions over a period of time. In Colorado, 80 percent of our surface water supplies come from melting snowpack. For us, a drought occurs when there is insufficient snowpack and reservoir storage to provide adequate water to urban and rural areas. A growing population puts additional demand on a limited water supply, worsening drought conditions.

We all remember the drought of 2002. It was exceptional not because of an overall lack of precipitation that year, but because of an extended dry period that started in 1999. That, coupled with an increase in water demands and higher-than-normal temperatures, quickly turned 2002 into an extreme drought year. For many of us, that was the first time drought became a serious concern. Prior to 2002, Colorado had been in an extended twenty-year wet period since 1982.

It’s easy to forget that drought is a common and natural occurrence in Colorado, with severe droughts occurring sporadically throughout the late 1800’s, the 1930’s, 1950’s, mid-1970’s, 1981, and most recently, 2002. Depending on the severity of a drought, it can take years or even decades to fully recover. Luckily, the 2002 drought, although severe, was relatively short-lived and was followed by above-average precipitation and cooler temperatures in the years following. The U.S. Drought Monitor indicates drought levels of an area based on the following drought scale:

D0 Abnormally Dry D1 Drought - Moderate D2 Drought - Severe D3 Drought - Extreme D4 Drought - Exceptional
October 2002 October 2009

As you can see from these side-by-side comparisons, drought conditions in Colorado have improved considerably over the last seven years. Parts of the state are still in the range of abnormally dry to moderate, but the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center is anticipating some improvement to the drought conditions in the southwestern corner of Colorado over the next several months.

Drought is ambiguous, complex, and extremely difficult to predict. Scientists are continually working on improving technology, but are still unable to predict drought a month or more in advance for most locations. Predicting drought depends on the ability to forecast two fundamental meteorological surface parameters: precipitation and temperature. From a historical record, we know that climate is inherently variable. We also know that anomalies of precipitation and temperature may last from several months to several decades. One thing that we can be certain of is that Colorado will have another severe drought. What we don’t know is when that will occur, how severe it will be, or how long it will last.

While we can’t yet predict a drought, we can try to prepare for one. The last 20 years have seen significant progress in proactive drought management in the United States, much of it at the state level. Colorado first developed a statewide plan in response to the 1981 drought. The Colorado Drought Mitigation & Response Plan was developed to provide an effective and systematic means for the State of Colorado to deal with emergency drought problems which may occur over the short or long term. The extensive and detailed plan has been updated and revised over the years, most recently in 2007 to comply with revised FEMA guidelines. The plan consists of four components: monitoring, assessment, mitigation, and response. It brings together local, state, and federal governments, as well as numerous task forces and agencies, all with specific rolls in dealing with Colorado drought at its varying degrees of severity. To learn more about Colorado’s drought plan, visit the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s website at http://cwcb.state.co.us.

We can all do our part to lessen the effects of drought by conserving the water we already have. Check out the Water Conservation Tips page for tips and information on how you can conserve at home, at work, and at school.