Beginning in 2000, a massive drought depleted most of Colorado’s water resources and parched the state into what’s been called one of the most severe droughts in 1200 years. Drought severity peaked in late summer 2018, with 77% of the state affected.
The Colorado River Basin was reduced to half its capacity, hitting a record low—in over 100 years of record-keeping. Although named after one state, the Colorado River (which feeds the Basin) runs 1400 miles through seven states and into Mexico, supplying one in 10 Americans with water.
Significantly, 90% of the Basin’s water comes from the Colorado River’s uppermost section. Not surprisingly, since this critical section originates in the Rocky and Wasatch Mountains of Colorado State, it is also the section that has been most adversely affected.
As the Basin’s water levels dropped throughout the 2000s, regional water supplies were choked. So was available water for domestic and irrigation uses throughout Arizona, southern California, southern Nevada, and northwestern Mexico—sending repercussions far beyond the River’s home state.
The same drought that afflicted Colorado also claimed neighboring states: Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. Even as the surrounding Southwest saw improvement during 2018, critical conditions persisted in these Four Corner States.
Experts crossed their fingers for El Niño, a climate phenomenon that produces increased precipitation. In October 2018, early snow flurries encouraged National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to forecast an 80% chance of El Niño.
Initial snowfall in December 2018 was promising. The tally in the most critical areas wasn’t as robust as Colorado had hoped, but it was healthier than 2017’s levels. And overall snowpack levels beat the state average and normal records.
Analysts tempered excitement with the warning that, after such a sustained and extreme drought, Colorado might need more than just one big snow to recover. Continued snowfall and a strong spring runoff would be key factors to watch. Moreover, while El Niño would add much needed moisture to the area, it also might mean warmer temperatures and, consequently, an unseasonable spring.
The favorable pattern continued into 2019 with a string of hefty winter storms that reduced Colorado’s drought nearly 25% by March. As May rolled around, officials and experts breathed a sigh of relief.
Barely 1% of Colorado remains in drought. Room for improvement persists in 15% of the state, which, although not in drought, remains relatively dry. Nevertheless, the worst seems finally over. And, with anticipated spring runoff, experts believe the rehydration trends will continue.
Weather swings are to be expected as climate change runs its course. In some areas, despite humanity’s best efforts to patch the damage, there may be inconvenient, even sad, consequences as rivers dry up while oceans flood cities. However, if recent developments in Colorado state are any indication of future possibilities, the Southwest’s prognosis is optimistic, although perhaps guardedly so.