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9/19/2013 Unlike rest of state, Valley’s rains generally welcomed

Some areas in county report nearly a foot of rain; Westcliffe just a good soaking; drought still on

The September torrential rain has all our tongues wagging about the freaky end-of-summer weather, our conversations dominated by the floods up north and the violent downpours in parts of Custer County. Does this mean the end of drought? Rumor circulating the streets is that old timers say the winter will be a hard one with lots of snow….will a heavy snowfall really happen this year and break the long cycle of aridity?

A resident of Ilse Camp reports that the area saw 11 inches of rain in the past few weeks. Every other day it seems legs of rain stride across the serrated peaks of the Sangres. The roads are muddy and raindrops pelt the windows and roofs. It bodes well for us, according to Paul Woulyn, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Pueblo. "The rain is widespread," he states, though drought still persists in the region.

"Drought in Colorado is multi-faceted," Woulyn points out. "Rain might benefit grass on the surface, but doesn’t add to the underground reservoirs or to deeper wells. With this month’s rain, it still remains to be seen if it has replenished wells or reservoirs." Describing Colorado’s strange drought conditions, Woulyn says, "In 2010 it rained a lot in the mountains and was dry on the plains. That year eastern Colorado had plenty of water from the Arkansas River, though the pastures, not getting any water, turned yellow." He also notes that Fremont County has gotten much more rain than Custer County.

As for the current rain, Woulyn refers to the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) website that shows Custer County still classified in a severe, or D-2, drought. "It’s possible the current rain has knocked us down to a D-1 drought, or moderate drought," Woulyn says. "That classification is determined by meteorologists in Washington D.C. who consult with state climatologists, so we won’t know for a few days what the classification is."

Those curious to learn the classification can this weekend check the site http://climate.colostate.edu/~drought/, which posts precipitation information. Under the tab "USDM Discussion," the severity of the Colorado drought is recorded with graphs and text.

The classifications show that water is a long-term investment and right now, running with a water storage deficit, the Valley still grapples with drought conditions. August 2013 was quite dry, worse than last year. September’s precipitation, though quite promising, has helped with regional aridity. Still, Woulyn says, "we have a way to go to get out of drought."

In Westcliffe, John Piquette indicates that the September showers have mostly skirted town. "A lot of rain has fallen in the surrounding areas," he says, "and seems to have missed town." He provides a comparison of this year rainfall within Westcliffe with last year. In July of 2012, two inches of rain fell; in July of 2013 the amount was one and four tenths inches. August in both years proved to be quite parched; in 2012 the month garnered eight tenths of an inch of rain, worsening in 2013 with just six tenths of an inch. Last year, September witnessed one and two tenths of an inch of moisture. This year, so far, September shows an encouraging uptick of two and a half inches.

Clearly, however, Westcliffe is not a reliable indicator to measure the amount of rain in the county. Woulyn says Rye, since July 1, has received 15 and a half inches of precipitation. Rancher Don Camper reports his spread off of Hermit Road on the west side has obtained a tremendous amount of water. "Since June 29 up until today we’ve had 14 and half inches of rain," he states. "It’s been a blessing!" He anticipates his hay crop is 65 to 70 percent intact this year. "Though the September rain hasn’t helped hay-wise, it all goes in the ground and helps us that way," he says.

When compared to Boulder, it appears Custer County is holding its own. The flood up north is described as a biblical "Noah’s Ark" deluge. Boulder receives approximately 1.7 inches of rain in September. Between September 1 and 16, the college town has been drenched with 17.17 inches of rain, shattering the record of 9.59 inches that sprinkled in May 1995. This year on Sept. 12, 9.08 inches cascaded over Boulder, almost twice as much as the prior daily record of 4.80 inches set July 31, 1919.

The unprecedented rain in the state is sparked by weak southwest winds that are slowly pulling a huge, humid air mass across the Front Range, a weather phenomenon not often experienced in the Rocky Mountains. Described by meteorologists as an orographic lift, this sluggish drag of wind converts extremely soggy air into torrents of rain – a veritable catalysm for a land already hardened by drought.

So what does the flood in Boulder have to do with us here in the Wet Mountains? Some local residents have had out-of-state family and friends call them and ask if their homes are filled with water. "Have you made it to high ground?" one caller reportedly asked a Custer County inhabitant. Those examples unfortunately reveal that folks who live beyond Colorado borders might think Westcliffe has a Big Thompson tsunami inundating the Valley. This means that local autumn tourism could suffer if people equate the floods in northern Colorado with our much drier – though recently much wetter -- Southern mountain ranges.

As for the old-timers predications of a snowy winter, we can all hope that snowpack piles in the Sangres, making for a well-irrigated year in 2014. In the meantime, the late summer rains will help ranchers thrive, grass grow, flowers bloom and ponds and streams fill. The rustling, gurgling sound of falling water is, as Camper says, "a blessing."

– Cyn Williams