Climate experts see high flow in Arkansas River, first good spring in years

Colorado is having its wettest year in 19 years — and nearly all of the state no longer is having any drought conditions, according to federal and state officials.

As of mid-May, snowpack levels ranged from 150 percent to 200 percent of normal in the mountains. That's the reason Colorado is virtually drought-free, according to the federal U.S. Drought Monitor.

"We've been looking at a big runoff this year," said Chris Woodka, issues manager at the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservation District. "Flow in the Arkansas River is very high now."

The wet conditions are in stark contrast to last year, when wildfires destroyed miles of forest and hundreds of houses around the state.

In Southeastern Colorado, farmers were leaving significant tracts of land unplanted as a hedge against drought-caused crop losses. Former Gov. John Hickenlooper declared disaster conditions in some counties.

Conditions began changing in January, when a string of heavy winter storms came across the region. Snow started piling up in the Sierra Nevada and central Rocky Mountains.

Woodka said the prolonged cool spring temperatures have also slowed down the spring melt and runoff, which has also helped end drought conditions in some hard-to-dampen areas.

The immediate outlook is also encouraging because spring is the wettest time of year for eastern Colorado and the plains region. But this spring's wet weather could be the exception if climate experts are right and global warming keeps pushing the temperature up.

At the recent Arkansas River Basin Water Forum in Pueblo, state water experts showed graphs and trend lines that show the average temperature has been climbing over the past century and would keep edging upwards.

Brad Udall, senior research scientist at the Colorado Water Institute, said the steady warming has caused widespread drought conditions in the West. That's one of the reasons California and Colorado are now plagued every year with wildfires that scorch miles of mountain forests.

He said the Arkansas River could have 20 percent less water in it by the year 2050.

"Water conservation has to be part of every discussion we have going forward," he said.