Drought, wildfires and now floods: Coloradans brace for new normal

Jennifer Pitt

(This post first appeared on Newswatch National Geographic)

September 16–The view from my window this morning in Boulder, Colorado, is gloomy. Clouds hover over the mountains, reminding me of the storm we have weathered, and the dismal conditions here on the ground.

Torrential rains swept through Colorado’s Front Range this past week, resulting in calamitous floods that continue to threaten lives, destroy property, and disrupt our communities. As of this writing, more than one thousand people are “unaccounted for,” meaning they were likely in flooded areas and no one has been able to reach them yet. We hope they are safe, just lacking phone access; authorities warn us to expect more deaths.

I can see the Chinook helicopters out my window as their pilots brave cloudy skies to search for people stranded in the mountain towns just outside of Boulder. I wish them luck.

The rain is unprecedented. Total precipitation in Boulder in the last week ranged 15 – 18 inches, more than doubling the previous record for a single storm event, setting a new record for precipitation in any one month as well as a new all-time annual high for precipitation. Most years September is sunny and dry, and the snows of March make our “normal” wet month. If last week’s rain had fallen as snow we might have seen upwards of 12 feet of the white stuff.

Instead, we got torrents rushing down mountain slopes, bringing untold volumes of water, mud, and rocks into creeks and rivers. Boulder Creek, which runs through downtown, was furious and brown when I walked by yesterday afternoon.

My personal experience of the storm is minor compared to the tragedy that surrounds me, but it’s been disruptive nonetheless: schools closed, office closed, basement flooded, roof leaking, warnings from local authorities to stay home and off the streets, flood sirens blaring at night. For many thousands of us, the storm has disrupted routines, and the news of those less fortunate has been sobering.

Most Coloradans haven’t yet fully absorbed what has happened to a huge swath of our landscape. Moreover, it’s still happening as I write, with communities downstream bracing for floods as the crest travels. In Colorado’s northeastern plains the South Platte River is now receiving the combined floodwaters from the Cache la Poudre River to Clear Creek and the dozens of creeks in between that drain the mountains from Fort Collins down to Golden. Thousands of people will be evacuated from their homes for a yet unknown period. The storm’s impact is vast and continuing, and only as we dry out over the next few weeks will we begin to know its full toll.

If you find the news about Colorado’s latest disaster confounding, you’re not alone. The floods of 2013 follow on the heels of a summer of drought and extreme wildfires. That we are experiencing these extremes in a single year is truly incredible. Call it a case of climate disaster whiplash. Until last week, it has been easy to focus on the clear signal forecasting that it has gotten warmer and drier, and that it will continue to do so as the decades pass. But in the midst of that drying trend, the models also tell us to expect rare wet extremes not seen before. Climate scientists warn of increasing VUCA, an acronym of military origins that stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. In other words, hang on for a wild ride.

Until last week, more than 90% of Colorado was in drought, including all of the Front Range and the eastern side of the state.

Just over the mountains the Colorado River Basin (from which the Colorado Front Range imports much of its water through tunnels) has been in drought conditions for more than a decade. Year after year in Colorado, we have lamented the absence of snowpack in the mountains, and headlines have recently been screaming the news about declining water supply. Ranchers have culled their herds for lack of animal feed, the ski and whitewater industries have had to make do with shortened seasons, and Front Range communities have had to conserve water to make reservoir supplies last through the hot summer. Colorado River water users to the south in Arizona, Nevada, California, and Mexico may soon get their first taste of what it’s like to live with reservoirs operating in shortage conditions.

The impact of Colorado’s droughts has not been limited to our water supply. The absence of precipitation in recent years resulted in tinder-box forest conditions. Catastrophic wildfires have devastated communities from Fort Collins down to Colorado Springs, claiming lives and destroying more than a thousand homes. The fires of 2013 raged through an unprecedented amount of the landscape, more than 140,000 acres all told.

It was only last summer that the view from my window was this smoky plume from a fire threatening the City of Boulder. (Thankfully our firefighters, with assistance from federal crews already in the state helping with big fires to the north and south, were able to put this one out quickly.

Colorado, like other hard-hit places around the globe, is getting a taste of climate extremes . The challenges are impossible to add up: catastrophic flash floods, wildfires, the personal tragedies of lives lost and dislocated, hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure repair costs, crops lost to drought and crops lost to saturated fields, schools closed, communities isolated, water quality problems, lost revenues to businesses like ski areas, outfitters, river guides and the hospitality industry that depend on Colorado’s healthy rivers and robust snowpack.

Droughts, and wildfires and floods, oh my. Is this our new normal?