The recent dry spell has pushed Southwest Colorado back into severe drought.
Since Oct. 8, the U.S. Drought Monitor has shown the Four Corners at level D2, or severe drought, the third-worst category of five levels.
The lack of moisture has been extraordinary, said Jim Andrus, a Cortez-based weather observer for the National Weather Service.
July, August and September were way below normal precipitation levels.
“The monsoon rains failed us. They never arrived because a consistent high-pressure ridge blocked them,” Andrus said.
July saw just .45 inch of rain, or 35% of the normal 1.28 inches. August had .57 inch, 39% of the normal 1.48 inches. September came in at .15 inch, just 10% of the normal average of 1.55 inch.
Dust on the horizon and dust clouds billowing up behind trucks on county roads is the result of no significant rain for weeks.
The numbers are a flashback to the 2017-2018 drought, triggered by 40% winter snowpack that brought severe water shortages for farmers and helped ignite large local wildfires.
Poor soil moisture this fall is affecting the dryland winter wheat crop, said Gus Westerman, of the Dolores County agriculture extension office.
The crop is planted in fall, germinates and sprouts, then goes dormant under winter snows before being harvested in spring.
“But very little of it has come up this fall because of the dry soil conditions,” Westerman said.
During average precipitation years, soil is moist 6-12 inches below the surface, ideal conditions for winter wheat to sprout before its dormant stage. This year, soil moisture level has basically zeroed out for dryland farmers, he said.
Not all is lost, though. If snowfall comes, the soil will be replenished, and crops will come up in spring, but potentially with smaller yields. For farmers planting winter wheat now, a higher seed rate is recommended.
Thanks to a 140% snowpack for the 2018-19 winter and a wet spring, Cortez is still at 122% of normal for total precipitation. On Oct. 1, 11.36 inches of precipitation had fallen for the year so far, exceeding the normal average of 9.33 inches. Average precipitation for the entire year is 12.57 inches and McPhee Reservoir had strong carryover. Reservoir managers report that even a 50% winter snowpack would refill it.
Southern Utah also is experiencing a severe dry spell. On Oct. 17, St. George, Utah, reported 122 days without measurable precipitation. That breaks the previous record of 121 days set in 1930, according to the National Weather Service.
In 2018, from April to December, the Four Corners area was in exceptional drought, the highest level, at D4, and was the hardest-hit region in the nation.