When a wildfire suddenly broke out last Friday in Lory State Park, west of Fort Collins, Coloradans breathed an anxious, collective sigh: not again.
The early season blaze stirred unpleasant memories of last year's trying fire season, which scorched about 385,000 acres in the state, according to the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control. Runoff from the San Juan mountains in 2012 was the third worst in the last 50 years, at only 40 percent of normal.
A second consecutive season with severe drought conditions - a real possibility - could pose further headaches for firefighters and agriculture producers in Southwest Colorado.
Much like last year, March has started out - with the exception of a minor storm two weekends ago - warm and dry.
"Lots of people (in agriculture) are hanging their heads," said Mike Preston, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District. "Farming and ranching is their livelihood, and they aren't optimistic about the weather. But we don't have a crystal ball. There are still unknowns."
The conservancy district and Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company both held board meetings last week to assess local water conditions heading into the 2013 growing season.
The available data don't bode well.
Soil moisture content is low. McPhee Reservoir is depleted. And snowpack in Colorado's eight major river basins is subpar. The basin that supplies McPhee - San Juan/Dolores - is faring the best at 86 percent of normal, according to March 15 SNOTEL measurements by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Local weather observer Jim Andrus said the promising snowfall earlier this winter has tapered off. December, January and February all saw above-average snow in Cortez, but March accumulation has so far been negligible. And, disturbingly, the storms often failed to deposit large accumulations in the high country.
In the month from Feb. 1 to March 1, projected inflow (runoff) into McPhee Reservoir was revised down from 205,000 acre-feet to 165,000.
"The lack of snow in February and early March is worrisome. We had some storms but they just did not deliver (much moisture). It's caused a significant drop in forecasted inflow," Preston said.
So, barring an extremely wet spring, this growing season looks to be a challenging one for irrigation-dependent agriculture producers.
Preston said all water allocations drawn from McPhee and the Dolores River were met in 2012, despite hot and dry weather, because McPhee began the season with a healthy reserve of 140,000 acre-feet. There is no such buffer this year. Active storage is now only 35,000 acre-feet.
Holders of senior MVIC water rights, mostly south of McPhee, are in the best shape. Preston said they should expect about 87 percent of full supply under current conditions. Full-service irrigators from Yellow Jacket to Dove Creek, who rely on stored project water, will be short-changed the most, getting only 65 percent of supply.
"They'll have one-third less water than they'd ordinarily be guaranteed," he said, equalling 16 inches of water per allocated acre.
The 7,700-acre Ute Mountain Farm and Ranch operation will receive approximately 17,500 acre-feet this season, down from the full 27,000.
Downstream releases from McPhee into the lower Dolores River, which also houses a trout fishery, will be curtailed too. At this stage, hopeful rafters and kayakers can forget about getting any spill releases for whitewater recreation.
Preston emphasized that weather patterns are fluid and difficult to predict more than 10 days out. A wet spring and summer could still be in the works.
"Two variables would help us right now. One is high-elevation snow. That didn't happen consistently this winter. High-elevation snow is what feeds reservoir inflow from April to July," he said. "The other variable is low-elevation rain this spring. Rain doesn't add much to the reservoir, but it does reduce irrigation demand. When it rains, crops don't need as much (piped) water and farmers turn their sprinkler systems off. So both those variables would be advantageous."
But for now, prevailing trends aren't cause for celebration.
"A wet, two-foot snow could change things. But in the forecast we see nothing to indicate a storm like that is in the offing," Preston added. "Without ruling anything out, we're considering the possibility that this could be it, as far as big snowstorms."
If dry, warm, and windy spring weather continues, runoff into McPhee Reservoir could be even less than current estimates, because snowpack melts into the slopes before feeding into streams.
The first irrigation releases are still several weeks away. The Ute Mountain Farm and Ranch starts irrigating around April 1, and subsequent releases move northward.
"The lands from Yellow Jacket to Dove Creek, along the main canal, generally have water by the first full week of May. The pressurized pump delivery system up there is sensitive to damage by freezing," Preston said. "So our maintenance superintendent waits to turn the system on until he thinks temperatures are warm enough to avoid any hard freeze events. Farmers look for that decision in early May."
Growers have several options during a tight water year. They can spread their allocation more thin across the same acreage, risking lower productivity; they can plant on less acreage, letting some land lie fallow; or they can substitute more drought-resistant crops, like Sudan grass.