Drought

The latest edition of the U.S. Drought Monitor, released Thursday, reveals a stark contrast between conditions on the Front Range and the Western Slope. (Courtesy image)

“Pop and drop,” forecasters call it.

It’s a storm in name only: dark clouds, perhaps a rumble or two of thunder (the ‘popping’ sound), maybe a few sheets of rain.

Then it’s all over. 

It’s the sort of weather pattern — weather holding pattern — that southwestern Colorado is in right now, and Tom Renwick, a forecaster in the National Weather Service’s Grand Junction office, doesn’t see it changing anytime soon.

This is in “stark” contrast, as Renwick put it, to the eastern part of the state. Denver has enjoyed its wettest year since 1944, and should see even more moisture over the next few days. 

“The Front Range is going to get a fairly decent amount of rain, and it’s in Wyoming, and western and central Utah,” all because of a closed low-pressure system, Renwick said. 

When it comes to the possibility of moisture for the Western Slope, Renwick used less technical language.  

“We get diddlysquat.”

Specifically, “You’re in for some showers and thunderstorms possibly on Monday, again on Tuesday, and maybe Wednesday,” but none of it will amount to much. Thanks to a series of big storms, the Front Range “is almost back to normal” when it comes to drought, Renwick said, “and we’re still sitting here, thinking, ‘Oh my God.’”

The type of weather pattern shaping up for the Southwest “is not uncommon,” he added. “From here on, May through July, these are our driest months. This is a very, very common pattern.”

Most common, and also concerning. According to the most recent U.S. Drought Monitor map, Western Colorado remains in category D3 or D4, meaning ‘extreme’ or ‘exceptional’ drought conditions prevail in this region (much of San Miguel County is designated D4). The risk of wildfires is high. At press time Friday, much of southwest Colorado was under a Red Flag warning — not the first this season. The forecast was for gusty winds and favorable conditions for “easy ignition and rapid spread of fires.” 

So acute is the fire risk, and so high the local interest, that on Monday, May 17, the weather service’s Grand Junction office will begin offering a series of weekly briefings with a special emphasis on fire weather conditions. The briefings will begin at 10 a.m., will last about 15 minutes, “and will be recorded and shared with all registrants within four hours” following each presentation (to sign up, go to tinyurl.com/v26y62ua).

The 90-day weather outlook for this region “calls for above-normal temperatures, and precipitation looks to be maybe a bit below normal,” Renwick said. “We’ve been dry for so long. We haven’t even had a monsoon for the past two years. The expression ‘haven’t had a monsoon,’ is kind of a misnomer,” he added. “Last year, New Mexico and Arizona got it, and the Front Range got some of it. It occurred someplace, in other words” (just not here). 

“I’ve been here 12 years, and it’s only in the last two that things seem to have gone a little haywire” when it comes to extreme drought, Renwick added. As forecasters, “We don’t know how, why, or what. We just roll with it. But I do know you can get so much precipitation in one season” that a drought can quickly come to an end. “We had so much moisture after 2018 — that incredibly dry year — that we came out of it,” Renwick recalled. “It can happen so quickly. I remember a couple of years ago, in California, the moisture deficit was huge. People were saying, ‘We’ll never get out of this drought.’ It took two weeks.”