CB faces drought despite average snowpack

Warm spring, dry trails, looming wildfire risk

By Kendra Walker

The trails are opening, the lupine wildflowers are already abundant, the rivers are flowing and we’re celebrating an early spring in Crested Butte. And while the access to our favorite trails and outdoor activities has provided much-needed solace and escape during the quarantine, the early snowmelt and drying raises concerns for a long-term warming trend and high wildfire risk this summer.

Despite an average snowpack last winter, the warm spring temperatures have caused the snowpack to disappear fast and make everything very dry.

“Things are happening a lot faster this year,” said Dr. Rosemary Carroll, a research professor in hydrology with the Desert Research Institute who monitors snowpack and streamflow in Crested Butte to better understand how the East River will respond to climate change. Carroll indicated that despite above-normal snowpack in 2019, the U.S. Drought Monitor placed Gunnison County in severe drought last October due to a very poor monsoon and depleted soil moisture.

Crested Butte also experienced low precipitation this spring and warmer than average temperatures starting in late April. “We have had approximately 50 percent less precipitation in April and May than the average condition, and in combination with a weak monsoon in 2019, we remain in severe drought conditions despite an average snow accumulation year,” said Carroll. “We are both warm and dry this spring.”

Mountains are warming more rapidly than the global or national average, said Carroll. She tracks data from the two Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) data collection sites in our basin. Known as Snow Telemetry or SNOTEL, one is located on the ski area and the other is up Schofield toward Paradise Divide. “The minimum and maximum daily air temperatures in March, April, May at the Butte SNOTEL are increasing approximately 0.4 degrees Celsius per decade since the early 1980s, even accounting for sensor bias,” said Carroll.

With increased air temperatures and low precipitation last fall and this spring, soils are very dry, Carroll explained. Reduced soil moisture combined with a warming spring results in less streamflow for the same amount of snowfall, she said. Carroll observed that streamflow conditions may look similar to 2018, which was a very dry year with lower snowfall and earlier melt compared to this year.

The open trails this spring align with the data, with the exception of last year’s big winter and wet spring. “2018 was indeed the driest,” said Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association executive director Dave Ochs. According to Ochs’ data of trail opening dates over the past four years, many of the popular trails close to town opened earlier this year than the 2017 and 2019 opening dates and much closer to the 2018 drought year openings. For example, Lower Loop opened on May 25 this year, compared to June 9 in 2017, May 15 in 2018 and June 21 in 2019. Snodgrass Trail opened on May 21 this year, compared to June 7 in 2017, May 16 in 2018 and June 19 in 2019. Trail 401 is not yet open this year, so it’s interesting to guess where it might fall, said Ochs, noting its past opening dates of July 16, 2017, June 18, 2018 and July 25, 2019.

Despite more time to play on the trails, the trending warming and dryness brings concern for high wildfire risk heading into this summer. Conditions will be especially difficult on the meadows, and will put a strain on the wildflowers, said Carroll.

“As we look into this wildfire season we are expecting an above average risk of fire potential through September,” said Crested Butte Fire Protection District (CBFPD) EMS and fire chief/chief operating officer Rob Weisbaum. “The last few days of May precipitation helped our current situation. However it is expected that in mid-June we will be approaching the above average risk for fire. We are looking at the driest times to begin by July.”

In order to help prevent wildfires this season, Weisbaum stresses, “Smart decision making and preparedness is key to a successful season. Clearly we cannot control Mother Nature; however, we can prevent human-caused wildfires, which are usually the culprit out here. We urge people to abide by fire restrictions when they are in place. Additionally, when camping, it is so important to make sure your campfire is out completely—cold to the touch.”

Weisbaum also said that over the last several years, CBFPD has been working on education surrounding the wildland urban interface. “Homeowners are encouraged to provide defensible space which can help prevent property damage. This means clearing out any old dead timber, clearing of vegetation, debris and combustible fuels close to the house. This will assist in reducing or slowing the spread of fire.”

There are currently no fire restrictions in place, but the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison (GMUG) National Forest is prepared for a high-alert season and encourages residents and visitors use extreme caution with campfires, charcoal, grills and agricultural burning.

“Based on long-term weather forecasts and expected dry conditions, 2020 is projected to be a higher than average year for wildland fire,” said Kimberlee Phillips, public affairs officer for the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests. “Our primary goal will be protecting life and property from wildfire while providing for public health and safety. Our federal agencies, tribal, state and local partners stand together, ready to respond to wildfire during the 2020 fire year. We may adjust how we fight fire in response to current conditions but will not alter our commitment to protect the American people and our lands.”

In addition to taking extra precautions to prevent wildfires this summer, Carroll strongly encourages people to be mindful of the water resources in the community and to get involved with organizations dealing with watershed health. Carroll also serves on the board for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, which focuses on issues affecting the water resources of the Upper Gunnison River Basin.

“Protecting our river corridors is very important to the economic and environmental health of our community,” Carroll says. “I hope everyone gets outside to enjoy our beautiful mountains, but remember good stewardship and camping practices are needed to protect our streams, especially in times of drought.”

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