Are we talking about the ‘d’ word again?

Did a hot, dry summer push us closer to drought? Time to check in on the state of our water supply.

October 4, 2016 | By: Steve Snyder
Barely a cloud in the sky at Denver's Cheesman Reservoir. In Colorado, the last few months have been warmer and drier than usual.
Barely a cloud in the sky at Denver’s Cheesman Reservoir. In Colorado, the last few months have been warmer and drier than usual.

Drought.

It’s one of the most doggone depressing and downright dreaded “d” words you can utter at a water utility.

Fortunately, Denver Water and most of Colorado have enjoyed a nice respite from drought recently. In fact, a string of cool, wet months turned last summer’s Drought Monitor map for our state practically monochrome.

But that was then, this is now. And drought is not a novel idea in Colorado.

Of course, there’s a difference between talking about a drought and actually being in one. So as we start a new water year, let’s review some facts about the state of our climate

— and our current water supply.

  • So far this year, Denver’s temperature hit 90 degrees or higher on 55 days. The long-term annual average over the past three decades is only 33 days.
  • This year, the Denver metro area received 12.4 inches of precipitation. Compare that to the long-term annual average of 13.3 inches.
  • While those precipitation numbers are similar, consider when the moisture fell. From January through May, precipitation in our service area was 120 percent of normal. From June through September, that precipitation was only 60 percent of normal.
  • The latest Drought Monitor map for Colorado now shows areas of moderate drought in the state, along with much larger areas that are considered abnormally dry.
  • The three-month forecast for most of Colorado calls for above-average temperatures with only average precipitation.

We watch weather patterns closely because Denver Water gets nearly all of its water supply from mountain snowpack. We collect it as it melts in the spring, treat it and then distribute it to our customers, based on demand.

The highest demand comes in the summer with outdoor water use — and the hotter the summer, usually the greater the demand.

The latest Drought Map for Colorado shows the impact of our recent hot, dry weather. (Photo courtesy of United States Drought Monitor.)
The latest Drought Map for Colorado shows the impact of our recent hot, dry weather. (Photo courtesy of United States Drought Monitor.)

Typically, our reservoirs hit peak levels in late spring and early summer and drain to their lowest levels just before the next spring runoff. Then the cycle starts again.

So after weighing all of those factors, should we be discussing the dreaded “d” word again?

“Drought is always in the back of our minds because we live in a semi-arid climate,” said Lindsay Weber, senior demand planner at Denver Water. “But typically during the fall and winter months, we are looking at snowfall. We track our snowpack to get an idea of how much water it might yield in the spring. If we start to see a shortfall, we have a drought committee that will prepare an appropriate response.”

Right now, Denver Water’s water supply is in good shape. Systemwide, our reservoirs are at higher-than-normal levels for this time of year, thanks to cooler, wetter weather in 2015, along with continued efficient water use by our customers.

So while the short-term outlook is encouraging, most Colorado residents know we can never rest on our laurels, or in this case, our reservoir levels. Climate change, a growing population and a strain on our natural resources will only continue to put pressure on long-term planning for a sustainable water supply. The next drought could be right around the corner.

But for now, the “d” word isn’t front and center in most conversations at Denver Water. Unless of course, we are talking about our Denver Broncos defense. That’s a “d” word we know other people truly dread.

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