The Crestone Eagle, June 2002:

Drought intensifies
by David Nicholas

We are still in the worst drought in living memory here in the San Luis Valley.

We did have some rain and snow in May, which in some places in the mountains actually touched the ground. But in most places if moisture actually hit the ground, it didn’t stay for long. The water did not noticeably alter or add to the streamflows down the mountain. What snow fell and stayed on the higher elevations, was made a memory by the wind in hours.

Fire bans and El Nino
The county fire ban is still in place and while the Rio Grande National Forest is only at a Stage 2 alert, which allows people into the forest but bans all fires, the Carson National Forest to the south has a stage 3 alert, which has closed the forest entirely to all. It is likely a stage 3 alert for the Rio Grande National Forest will go into effect soon, if conditions do not improve.

Currently the National Weather Service (NWS) gives the Southwest a D3 Rating, Extreme Drought. From now until August, the Climate Prediction Center is saying that there may be some short-term improvement in the seasonal outlook, but it will be spotty (to use their term). Their forecast says that there will be substantial water shortages and very low streamflows.

A quick and random check of people with domestic wells in Crestone and the Baca Grants revealed that the average depth is about 50 feet. These are shallow wells. Farmers are drawing water from the unconfined aquifer for irrigating their crops in the central part of the valley at this time. The water table in the unconfined aquifer may drop significantly as a result. People may need to monitor the water levels of their wells. Water drilling companies do offer it as a paid service to check well levels, or you might want to call Ralph Curtis at the Rio Grande Water Conservation District at 589-6301 and ask who does perform this service, if the well existed when you bought your land.

El Nino
As of May 15, the El Nino condition, which was seen earlier this year forming around the islands of Indonesia, has spread eastward. Intense areas of warming waters at the surface are between 29 to 30+ degrees Centigrade and now cover most of the Pacific Ocean between the Tropics east of New Guinea. However, separately there is intense warming of surface waters off the coast of Central America, just south of Mexico, and if this moves north, which is predicted, it should begin influencing our weather within the year. Earlier this year, the NWS long range forecast said that the El Nino would send rain north of us and south of us, but not in our area.

Help from the Gov.
On Thursday, May 23, Gov. Bill Owens focused primarily on what the state is doing to address current drought and fire hazard issues, during an hour-long stop Wednesday at a luncheon hosted by the Trinidad-Las Animas County Chamber of Commerce at Trinidad Holiday Inn.

Calling this year's drought the worst the state has ever faced, Owens said the state was at 11 percent of the average year's snowpack with the odds of significant rainfall before year's end "slim at best. This year we're in a late August environment in mid-May and won't have any snow for another four months," Owens said.

The governor told the audience of about 150 that the extremely dry conditions could lead to another summer like two years ago when huge forest and grassland fires devastated many areas of the state, including two huge fires that scorched western Las Animas County.

"We've already had three to four times as many fires year-to-date as we normally would have in a whole year," Owens said. "We now have four times the fire personnel benefiting the state this summer compared to last summer—120 full-time fire professionals waiting on call to fight these fires."

A water helicopter is stationed at the Saguache airport during this time, and two slurry tanker aircraft on call at the Pueblo airport.

Gov. Bill Owens also signed two water bills on May 23, that he said will help us battle a worsening drought. Under HB1414 by Rep. Diane Hoppe, R-Sterling, and Sen. Lewis Entz, R-Hooper, the state engineer will be able to approve substitute water supply plans much faster than in the past.

"There appears to be situations where water may be available from various sources that can supplement water supplies in an area where resources are running extremely low," Owens said. "Without this legislation, approval for this emergency 'rental' of water would have to go through a lengthy, cumbersome process. Now these requests can be expedited."

The other legislation, HB1152 by Hoppe and Sen. Jim Isgar, D-Hesperus, is the annual Colorado Water Conservation Board's projects bill. The bill authorizes millions of dollars in new low-interest loans for water projects—more than $30 million in new loans and nearly $5 million for satellite monitoring of rivers and streams, water supply studies, watershed and flood control plans.

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