Northwest Colorado still seeing exceptional drought, as much of West Slope sees conditions improve |

Northwest Colorado still seeing exceptional drought, as much of West Slope sees conditions improve

The U.S. Drought Monitor for Aug. 31. About 4% of Colorado is at the highest level of "exceptional drought." At the begining of July, about 18% of the state was at that level.
Courtesy graphic

Though a strong monsoonal pattern and near average rainfall totals have eased drought conditions across the Western Slope, much of Northwest Colorado, including part of Routt County, remains in the highest level of drought recorded by the U.S. Drought Monitor.

In the past three months, Steamboat Springs has seen about 4.4 inches of rainfall, just short of the 5.1 inches the area would see in a normal year, according to the National Weather Service.

“Anything close to average is, of course, beneficial, especially when we are in some of the driest months of the year,” said Mike Weissbluth, a local meteorologist who runs the forecasting website

But southern parts of the West Slope have seen a stronger monsoonal push, far exceeding a normal summer’s rainfall. Around the Fourth of July, most of western Colorado was either red or deep red on the Drought Monitor map, denoting the highest two levels of drought. At the beginning of September, these levels now are largely isolated to counties in the northwest corner.

“Last year, we kind of didn’t have a monsoon, maybe for like a day or two. The year before that, we had a very, very short one,” said Tom Renwick, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction. “We’ve really been waiting for a year with a good monsoon, and this was a good one.”

The monsoonal moisture moves up from the south through Mexico, over Arizona and New Mexico and then to the West Slope. While it has been a strong push, Renwick said it often hasn’t been enough to bring above-average rainfall this far north.

“I know a lot of rain fell down in the San Juan (Mountains), and it probably just got wrung out before it reached all the way up here,” Renwick said.

Weissbluth agreed, pointing to the difference in impact rain has had over two wildfire burn scars in different parts of the state. While rain over the Grizzly Creek burn scar has caused frequent mudslides in Glenwood Canyon, the East Troublesome burn scar — farther northeast in Grand County — has seen less rain.

“The monsoonal push wanes as it gets further north, and that’s pretty typical. The moisture has farther to move because it is all coming from the Mexican Plateau,” Weissbluth said. “As you get further north, you are farther away from the moisture, and it is less likely that you are going to get that push. “

Neither Weissbluth nor Renwick were ready to say that the monsoonal moisture was done for the year, but it is winding down. As the sun angle lowers and heating decreases, Weissbluth said a ridge of high pressure to the south and east that helps pull moisture up weakens.

At the same time, the jet stream is moving farther south, making it harder for moisture to come north and closing the tap to monsoonal moisture.

“We are tapering off,” Weissbluth said, adding that rain he sees in forecast models for next weekend isn’t monsoonal, instead coming from the West Coast.

The monsoonal pattern in the summer doesn’t have any connection to what the winter could look like in terms of snow locally, both Weissbluth and Renwick said.

When it comes to winter outlook, Weissbluth said he is paying attention to the North Pole, which has been relatively active recently by dumping cold air into the Bearing Sea and creating storms in the Gulf of Alaska.

“At this time, I may be cautiously optimistic,” Weissbluth said, offering a very early ski season snow outlook. “But it’s a complete and utter guess based on an early season reading of the patterns that may or may not hold.”

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