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Denver and much of the metro area now in “extreme drought”

Denver alongside parts of Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield, Jefferson and Weld counties are now all considered to be in an extreme drought, according to fresh data from the National Drought Mitigation Center.

The center, based out of the University of Nebraska Lincoln, updated Colorado’s drought map this week to indicate that much of the state sunk deeper into drought. That means increased wildfire risk and worsening conditions for pasture, cropland and livestock.

“We can probably call it a heat wave,” Russ Schumacher, a climatologist with Colorado State University and director of the Colorado Climate Center, said. “It’s much much above normal for early December, not just in Colorado but across a big swathe of the country.”

Currently 38% of the state is in severe drought and 14.34% of the state is in extreme drought, up from 32% and 8.75%, last week, respectively, the drought map shows. The rest of the state varies between moderate drought and abnormally dry. Less than 5% of the state is not classified as in a drought, though those portions are still categorized as abnormally dry.

The worsening drought comes as Denver not only continues to set the record for how long the city has gone without its first measurable snow (the previous record was Nov. 21, 1934), ending the ninth driest November on record. Plus, the city tied its high temperatures for Dec. 1.

Higher temperatures exacerbate the already dry conditions, according to Richard Heim, a meteorologist with the National Centers for Environmental Information.

“You’re getting a lot of evaporation of moisture out of the ground,” Heim, who also authored Colorado’s latest drought statistics, said.

Aside from the more immediate risk of wildfires, the worsening drought also means Colorado’s snowpack levels are lagging further behind normal levels. Therein lies the bigger concern, Schumacher said.

“We should be building up the snowpack right now but instead we’re flat or getting worse,” he said.

Data collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service shows that snowpack around Alamosa sits at 36% of normal levels, down 1% from last week. Snowpack around Durango decreased by the same amount and now sits at 33% of normal levels.

Snowpack further north worsened even more with levels around Ouray and Gunnison at 53% of normal, down from 61% last week. And snowpack around Aspen and Glenwood Springs is now 63% of normal, down from 72% last week.

Low snowpack levels translate to lower water levels along the already dry Colorado River.

“If I were a water manager, I’d be making plans for some really bad conditions,” Heim said.

The drought conditions in Colorado aren’t as bad as they were this time last year or during 2002, Heim noted, though he didn’t express optimism for the coming weeks.

“It’s bad but it has been worse,” Heim said. “The not-so-good thing, though, is that it can still get worse.”

Schumacher said a bit of hope is appearing on the horizon because there’s a chance for snow early next week.

“They’re not going to be big snowstorms or big blockbusters or anything like that but at least there’s a chance,” he said. “Then the question is are we just going to get one or two storms and then is it back to warm and dry? Or is it a pattern shift that takes us back to more of a normal winter?”

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