Post-holiday drought makes for its own ‘Dry January’

But avoid temptation to fire up the irrigation system — just a little hand watering will do fine.

January 27, 2020 | By: Todd Hartman

If you committed to a “dry January” as a way recover from too much holiday booze, it appears you have company — from the weather.

Denver is on the verge of only its third snowless January on record, a marker set back in 1934 and again nearly 70 years later in 2003. The dry streak actually extends into 2019, as the Denver area has not had measurable precipitation since Dec. 28.

The news isn’t too grim, at least not yet. Wintertime dry spells are not all that uncommon, especially in January, and snow totals in the high country remain encouraging a month into winter.

Percent of Normal Precipitation map of Colorado from November 28th, 2019 to January 26th, 2020 from NCAA Regional Climate Centers.
While dry along the Front Range, the map shows good snowfall in Colorado’s mountains over the past month. Image credit: High Plains Regional Climate Center.


Even so, the parched skies in Denver might make it tempting to turn on the sprinklers, but don’t get carried away.

“It’s too early to turn on your irrigation systems, but occasional hand-watering in the winter is especially helpful for newly planted trees, shrubs, plants and grass,” said Jeff Tejral, who leads landscape efficiency for Denver Water. “A few gallons go a long way this time of year.”

Tejral says watering one or two times per month during dry stretches is plenty to prevent root damage that affects the health of the entire plant. He also recommends starting by identifying trouble spots in your landscape, such as areas facing south and west that lose moisture faster due to greater sun exposure.

Other winter watering tips include:

  • Water only when air and soil temperatures are above 40 degrees Fahrenheit with no snow on the ground. Use the screwdriver test to make sure your soil isn’t frozen, as frozen soil won’t absorb water.
  • Apply water within the dripline — the most critical part of a tree’s root zone. Established large trees have a root spread equal to or greater than the height of the tree.

Forecaster Kyle Fredin at the National Weather Service told Denver Water that even with the long dry spell, winter snowfall for the region is right about average thanks to storms in October and November.

“Nature does its stuff in bursts and bulk, it doesn’t dole it out evenly,” Fredin said. “For people who lived here a while, this is nothing too wild.”

And in the mountains, snowpack is in good shape so far, with consistent storms keeping levels at above-average totals in all eight of Colorado’s river basins.

In two basins most important to Denver Water, the South Platte and the Colorado, totals are at 114% and 110%.

“So far, so good for snowpack,” said Nathan Elder, Denver Water’s manager of water supply. “Our best mountain snows are usually yet to come, in March and April. And we’ll need that again to ensure good reservoir conditions and a good runoff season.”

Good mountain snowfall will need to continue, however, as a dry summer in 2019 means low soil moisture levels that will drink up a bigger share of melting snow come spring.

And, Fredin noted, the snowless January in Denver might not hold. There’s a possibility of snow Monday and Wednesday, before the month concludes on Friday

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