Miles of difference: The summer of sweat and wet

Many Coloradans live by the axiom “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” But this summer was an extreme exception to the rule. A monsoon-filled May in the north and a long summer of droughts in the south greatly impacted Colorado’s environment and residents.

From May to July, Boulder had its 12th wettest summer since 1948. Just 143 miles southwest, the complete opposite happened. Cañon City and the surrounding communities of Penrose and Florence faced a dangerous drought.

Cañon City received just 1.99 inches of precipitation, 175 percent less than the average amount during that three month span.

Drought conditions were even more severe considering the area also had an extremely dry winter and spring, says Keith Berger, the Bureau of Land Management’s Royal Gorge Field Manager.

“Generally what happened overall was we had a very, very dry winter, going into the spring, and then we had an extremely dry, windy spring,” Berger said.

Berger said most of the moisture that the area did receive dried up quickly due to the high winds and temperatures. This led to a reduced amount of grass and shrub growth and the drying of streams and springs. Because of these conditions, wildlife concentrated around water and travelled along highly grazed areas.

The BLM tracks something they call “fuel moisture,” the amount of moisture that’s in fuels typically involved in wildfires, including everything from grass and shrubs to logs and trees.

This summer, fuel moistures were the lowest they have been in the 50 years the bureau has recorded it. This year, fuel moistures were even lower than they were in 2002, the year of the biggest fire in Colorado history, the Hayman Fire, Berger said.

“We were drier and higher fire danger early in the season,” Berger said. “But then probably about a month ago, we started getting some additional moisture, and that allowed the fire danger to be reduced a little bit.”

Under these conditions, the BLM brings in additional firefighters, engines and air tankers from other parts of the country.

The BLM also keeps an eye on things like the Palmer Drought Index and the Natural Resource Conservation Service to help predict and prepare for droughts. The BLM issues livestock grazing licenses for farmers to use public land, but must keep a strong line of communication to make sure that cattle are rotated so that they can keep the land productive in the long term.

Farmers in southern Colorado must think long term, despite conditions changing greatly from season to season. Penrose-based farmer Terry Veitch said he spent this summer praying for rain.

A lack of snowpack on Pikes Peak meant much less irrigation for his grass/alfalfa mixed hay crops. Veitch said he usually irrigates three acres, which comes out to be 200 bales. This year, he got only 37. Water share costs and the costs of putting up his hay are usually 99 cents per bale, but this year, it cost him $18.75 per bale.

Veitch said rain is crucial for his crops, which have roots that grow 12 to 20 feet below ground. While the drought has been tough on him, he said some farmers have it worse.

“When it’s too hot, it keeps baking the root system,” Veitch said. “Most people here with apple orchards hauled water out of Florence to keep roots alive. It greatly impacted the apple crops.”

Veitch said many orchards have been forced to close their local operations. Vietch doesn’t plan to leave town, but he believes he will most likely have to replant for next year, which will have an initial cost of $1500 for his three acres.

Up north, Boulderite Theresa Barker had a different problem. She and her husband grow tomatoes, peppers, spinach, lettuce and beets in their backyard and also brew their own beer.

The Barkers tried to grow radishes, carrots and squash, but this past May was too wet and cool for them to grow properly, although they have never had this problem in the past. Oppositely, their peppers prospered in August’s heat.

Barker said if conditions are too wet or too hot, plants can’t germinate properly. However, she added that she, and her garden, prefers things to be on the drier side, despite the increased costs of watering her plants.

On the larger spectrum, Berger and the BLM believe that too much rain is better than none at all.

“It’s hard to see getting too much water over a growing season because usually when you get a lot of moisture, plants just grow that much better,” Berger said.

It’s also a lot easier on wildlife, he added.

“Certainly you can get very short-term, intense events that cause some flooding and things like that, but typically, you see the droughts’ effects a lot more or more often than above-normal precipitation here,” Berger said.

Klaus Wolter, Ph.D. of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences believes that this past year’s weather is indicative of La Niña, which in the winter, causes increased windiness east of the Continental Divide and more snow to the west, especially north of Interstate-70.

“Overall, a dry, hot summer is actually more consistent with La Niña than El Niño around here, so I don’t think the recent dryness is that unusual, and (it’s) similar to last year’s,” Wolter said.

In light of this, Wolter said people in the private sector, especially ski resorts such as Vail, seed clouds to create rain and snow. Advocates of seeding say it can increase precipitation by 10 percent, but it seems to work best when there is already some precipitation occurring.

While it may take a bit longer than five minutes, Colorado weather does seem destined to unpredictability, Wolter said. As for farmers like Vietch, Wolter suggests to plant hardier plants when there is an increased risk of drought, and to prepare for things to get worse as we go forward.

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