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Colorado is drought-free for only the second time in 23 years

Colorado is the only state in the western region without drought. And monsoon season has barely started.
Denver metro area Golden storm moving in_June 17, 2023
Posted at 8:38 PM, Jul 06, 2023
and last updated 2023-07-06 22:38:06-04

For only the second time since 2000, Colorado is free of any drought and it is all thanks to the snowpack and lots of recent rain, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor and National Weather Service (NWS).

The U.S. Drought Monitor uses five classifications to illustrate the location and intensity of droughts across the United States and regularly releases the data. According to its map published Thursday morning, which depicts conditions from July 4, 2023, Colorado is 100%-drought free.

U.S. Drought Monitor for Colorado July 6 2023

This is only the second time in recorded history that this has happened, according to a hydrologist with the NWS. However, the U.S. Drought Monitor only started working with this kind of data in 2000. The first time the state was free of any drought using this data was May 28-July 16, 2019.

It came close in May 2001, when less than 1% of the state was experiencing drought.

drought monitor for colorado.jpg

According to the Colorado Climate Center, Colorado has had five dry periods before the turn of the 21st century: 1893-1905, 1931-1941, 1951-1957, 1963-1965, and 1975-1978. Since then, the state has had several years of severe drought, including 2002, 2012, 2018 and 2020, which were some of the driest on record.

Drought — which is characterized by severity, location, duration, and timing to evaluate a region's hydrological cycle — in Colorado has intense impacts to agriculture, industry, recreation, wildlife, the state's economy and more.

Thursday's clear drought map comes in the wake of several weeks of heavy, widespread precipitation. The state has seen so much rain this year that Denver broke several precipitation records. This has led to the wettest June (15 days had measurable precipitation) and May on record in the city.

On Tuesday, the NWS in Boulder reported Denver had surpassed its average annual precipitation of 14.48 inches with an additional 0.48 inches by nightfall. By Wednesday morning, that number was at 15.2 inches.

denver rain may 11 2023.jpg

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Bruno Rodriguez, a meteorologist with the NWS, said it's possible for Denver to reach annual records this year.

“By the same time this year, we usually will have picked up around 7 inches of rain and we are running a little over double that at this point," he said.

This is reflected across much of Colorado as well. Over the past eight weeks, the state has seen significant improvements while much of the Midwest saw declining conditions.

Drought change

Colorado is surrounded by states that are continuing to see dry conditions. This is especially true in Kansas and Nebraska, where many counties have extreme or exceptional levels of drought — some of the worst in the country.

Colorado is the only state in the western region without drought.

U.S. Drought Monitor across United States

And monsoon season has barely started. The North American monsoon typically shows up in July, so it's just kicking off. This monsoon is a seasonal change in the atmospheric circulation that occurs as the summer sun heats the continental land mass, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In short: Colorado has another two months of wet weather ahead.

Denver just broke its average annual precipitation record – and we’re only halfway through the season

On top of recent rainy weather is a solid season of snowpack.

“We had a huge snow year in the mountains," said Russ Schumacher, state climatologist with the Colorado Climate Center. "So a lot of places... have had several years of below-average snowpack, and this year, we built it back up.”

That was the case beginning in the early spring. In late March, Denver7 chief meteorologist Mike Nelson said the statewide snowpack was “very good right now,” with some areas in southwest Colorado at almost 200% of normal, “which is great news,” he said. At that time, the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan basin led the pack at 183% of normal — a 43% increase in its snow water equivalent since the beginning of the month.

Schumacher said the past season's snow, especially west of the Continental Divide, has recharged reservoirs and helped reduce the short-term drought concern in the state.

Snow Water Equivalent July 6 2023

"The U.S. Drought Monitor map for Colorado is now completely clean for this week, which is the first time that's happened since 2019, which was another one of those years where we had a big mountain snowpack, and then a pretty wet spring," he said.

It's not common to see the entire state soaked, he added.

"Having this short-term elimination of drought is great news," Schumacher said. "And, you know, kind of cause for celebration in terms of having, at least for the time being, plentiful water around. But we also know how quickly that can revert back to drought conditions here in Colorado.”

He said this doesn't mean the state is in the clear for years to come. He gave 2019 as an example — a year that had big, wet snow and wiped the drought map clean. But just one year later, in the summer of 2020, Colorado saw its worst wildfire season on record.

"One really good snow year for us in Colorado goes a really long way — it fills relatively small reservoirs (and the) backup gets the rivers flowing again," he said. "But if you zoom out to the Colorado River Basin as a whole, or the Southwest U.S. as a whole, we go downstream to those huge reservoirs — Lake Powell and Lake Mead — and one year doesn't really go very far. We would need year after year of lots of mountain snow and lots of rain to bring those reservoirs back up to even where they were, you know, 20 to 25 years ago. So, we're nowhere near that at this point.”

So, what does this say about climate change?

"We've always had droughts. And droughts come and go. But what we're seeing as the climate warms is that when those dry periods come around, they get worse because the warmer the air is, the thirstier the air is for water to pull it out of the soils, the reservoirs, the rivers, whatever," he said. "So, when the naturally dry periods come, they hit harder when it's warmer."

Schumacher said the evidence shows climate change amplifies the extremes — both the droughts and wet periods are worsened by warmer weather. But research will determine the role climate change may have had on recent extreme rainfall.

Looking ahead a few months, a seasonal drought outlook map, which forecasts through the end of September 2023, shows continued lack of drought in Colorado.

This significant precipitation is not only good for gardens and local green spaces, but it is also helping to combat the state's drought and threat of wildfires. Rodriguez said the state will likely see below-normal wildfire danger in the short-term, especially in the foothills and plains.