July 11, 2008

Record Dry Year in Making Only 3.26 Inches of Moisture at DIA This Year

By Bill Scanlon

Holy Mojave, 2008 is shaping up to be the driest year in Denver's history.

The official weather site at Denver International Airport recorded just 3.26 inches of precipitation by Wednesday, National Weather Service hydrometeorologist Frank Benton said.

That's a third less than the record set in the drought year of 2002, when 4.65 inches of precipitation was recorded by July 9.

The 2002 year total of 7.48 inches of precipitation stands as the driest on record, dating back to 1872.

The fact that many areas of the central and northern mountains had a good snow year is saving metro Denver from the serious consequences of a drought, Benton said. "That will fill up the reservoirs."

Reservoirs on the South Platte River system are at 87 percent of their historical average, and those on the Arkansas River are at 84 percent, said Mike Gillespie, snow survey supervisor for the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Water storage on the Western Slope is more than 100 percent of average.

The low readings can be somewhat misleading because DIA is east of most of metro Denver's population and doesn't always get the same weather.

For example, during the big rainstorm of June 5, DIA recorded just .57 of an inch, but many areas of Denver and the suburbs recorded well over an inch.

Still, it's been very dry all along the Front Range and the plains.

"You can't blame it on La Nina because our mountains have gotten hammered," Benton said. "It's just a lack of systems that came through. The systems that did come through were generally dry.

"We hear the thunder and see the lightning, but no moisture comes with it."

Each month of 2008 has had less than half the long-term average moisture. July has had .22 of an inch of rain. The average through July 9 is .59 of an inch.

April was at one-fifth of average, and March was one-sixth of average.

There was almost no moisture at all in January, when DIA recorded just .18 of an inch of precipitation.

People are conserving

Metro water officials are singing the praises of their customers, saying that despite the current heat wave, people are remembering the conservation lessons of 2002.

Prior to 2002, Denver Water's 1 million or so customers typically used 450 million to 500 million gallons on a hot, dry summer day, spokeswoman Stacy Chesney said.

The record was 553 million gallons set on July 6, 1989.

This year's peak usage day was June 30, at 397 million gallons.

During the Fourth of July weekend, usage topped out at 373 million gallons.

Typically, 10 inches of snow equals about 1 inch of precipitation in Denver's climate.

Most of the water Front Range residents depend on for showers and lawn sprinkling comes from the melting snow working its way through reservoirs.

Snowpack was very close to average along the Front Range this spring, Gillespie said.

"It was the best year we've had since 1987," Gillespie said, referring to the snowpack.

The plains are hurting from the lack of rain, Benton said. Besides not getting enough water on the farms, "they've had quite a bit of hail out there," he noted. "Luckily, we've missed out on the big hail here. I just don't know how they survive out there."

He asked one longtime eastern Colorado farmer that question. "She said, 'We're just spending our savings and hoping next year will be better.' "

Temperature fairly normal

Some farms near Lamar, Holly and Rocky Ford are struggling because of the lack of rain, he said.

"They got a good runoff from the headwaters of the Arkansas, but that doesn't help the dryland farms," which don't have access to the groundwater or river water, he said.

The farms in northeastern Colorado are faring better.

While it's shaping up to be a record dry year, 2008 has had fairly typical temperatures, just a little bit cooler than average.

June felt nice and mild for many people along the Front Range but actually was just two-tenths of a degree cooler than normal - an average daily temperature (not the high or the low) of 67.4 degrees, compared with the typical 67.6 degrees.


Denver's driest

The 15 years with the least precipitation, dating to 1872:

Inches of rain Year

7.48 2002

7.51 1954

7.58 1939

7.75 1911

8.45 1962

8.48 1893

8.93 1934

9.03 1943

9.10 1901

9.12 1930

9.24 1917

9.33 1890, 1899

9.50 1903

9.51 1888

* Average inches: 15.81

* Record inches (1967): 23.31

* Inches this year so far: 3.26


Ways to water wisely

Native plants have evolved to handle sweltering summers, but most of the plants and grasses decorating area homes come from less harsh environments. Here are some tips for making your out-of-state plants feel at home while staying mindful of drought conditions:

* Optimize your watering

Denver Water lays out strict usage rules each year. From May 1 to Sept. 1, the city bans watering between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., and you can water only three times a week, with some exceptions.

So how do you optimize your watering schedule?

"You want to try to water in the mornings rather than in the evenings," said Christine Hise, a manager at Nick's Garden Center in Aurora. Water applied early in the morning will evaporate as the day passes, which eliminates the danger of fungi and insect infestations.

Heat can turn Kentucky bluegrass dormant, making lawns brown, said Kelly Grummons, co-owner and chief horticulturist at Timberline Gardens in Lakewood.

Most people try to overcompensate by watering more, but in fact, Grummons said, they are only flushing nutrients from the soil. The lawn will regain its color after the heat subsides, Grummons said.

"The main thing is to water deeply," Grummons said, recommending a thorough soaking a couple of times a week instead of a little bit every day.

* Plan well!

As Colorado's population grows, the amount of water available for landscaping is going to decrease. Planning a water-friendly garden becomes essential, experts say.

Applying mulch to gardens helps preserve moisture as well, and maintaining rich soil will help plants retain their vigor, said Colorado State University professor Jim Klett.

* Stay true to your roots

A healthy root system means a healthy lawn.

An abundance of water prevents roots from growing deep into the soil, which, in turn, trains the grass to need lots of water.

Originally published by Bill Scanlon, Rocky Mountain News.

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