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Drought Resources


Information courtesy of AgNews - CSU Agriculture News

What is drought?

The government officially defines drought as "a period of insufficient rainfall for normal plant growth, which begins when soil moisture is so diminished that vegetation roots cannot absorb enough water to replace that lost by transpiration."

This is a good definition for areas that depend on rainfall for their moisture, but, in Colorado, 80 percent of our surface water supplies come from melting snowpack. A better definition of drought for Colorado might read: "A period of insufficient snowpack and reservoir storage to provide adequate water to urban and rural areas."

What is snowpack?

Snowpack in Colorado refers to the accumulation of snow that gradually adds up over the course of the winter, mostly in the mountains. The water content of snowpack is what water officials monitor closely because it directly relates to the amount of water that will end up in Colorado's rivers, streams, reservoirs and irrigation canals during the late spring and summer.

The water content in mountain snowpack normally reaches its greatest amount in mid-April but sometimes does not peak until late April or early May. Based on average measurements of more than 70 monitoring locations in high and moderately high snow accumulation areas in Colorado's mountains, the average snowpack water content is about 18 inches at its peak.

What is a river basin?

A river basin is simply the land area that could contribute water to a particular river by natural gravity. The South Platte River Basin, for example, consists of all the areas from the crest of the mountains (the Continental Divide in this case) to the river itself, where all water that flows naturally by gravity without evaporating would end up in the South Platte River. Thus, Castle Rock is in the South Platte River Basin as is Cheyenne, Wyoming and Estes Park, as well as the cities of Denver, Greeley, Fort Morgan and others that are immediately along the river.

What is stream flow and what does it measure?

Stream flow is the volume of water passing a specified point along a river or stream. Stream flow is typically measured in units of cubic feet per second to define instantaneous flow rates, or in acre-feet to define the total volume of water over longer periods of time.

Scientists have long established useful relationships between measured snow pack levels and ensuing stream flow volumes so that winter and spring snowpack measurements result in reasonably accurate predictions of spring and summer stream flow from Colorado's mountain rivers and streams.

In Colorado's water law system, accurate measurements of stream flow are critical for determining how much water is available to each water owner. Hydrologists and engineers also track stream flow carefully in order to determine how large to build structures such as bridges, culverts, canals, dams and spillways to safely convey water from snowmelt and from heavy rains.

How will this drought affect the average Colorado resident?

The water shortage affects many industries, including farmers, vegetable growers and greenhouses, as well as implications for individuals in urban and rural areas and how they'll use water. Some water users will be impacted more than others. For example, people who own land with junior water rights will be impacted by the low snowpack and runoff levels expected this summer.

Food producers, including farmers and ranchers, may be the most affected by the drought, but urban water users also will experience consequences. Water conservation is an important tool that can help preserve water during a dry year. Some strategies that all citizens can use to contribute to water conservation are to reduce their personal water use at home and on their landscapes. For more information about water conservation in the home and on landscapes, contact the local Cooperative Extension office, usually listed under the county government section of the local phone book. Information also is available at and will continue to be updated throughout the summer


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