Drought - Frequently Asked Questions

What is drought?

Drought is a shortage of water associated with a lack of precipitation. It occurs when a normal amount of moisture is unavailable to satisfy an area’s usual water consumption. Drought can appear slowly and last for many years or it can be a short-lived event, although both can have significant impacts. It also can occur locally, regionally or statewide. Drought impacts on society result from the interplay between a natural event, demands for water supply and the economic and environmental impacts that can result. In Colorado, 80 percent of our surface water supplies come from melting snowpack. A definition of drought for Colorado is "A period of insufficient precipitation, snowpack and reservoir storage to provide adequate water to urban and rural areas."

Is Colorado currently in a drought?

Drought is a normal, recurrent feature of Colorado’s climate but without adequate mitigation and response, it can be very destructive. With Colorado’s semiarid and variable climate, there will always be a concern for water availability within the State. Official drought declarations are established by the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Colorado Drought Task Force. For up-to-date information on drought status see: http://cwcb.state.co.us/water-management/drought/Pages/main.aspx

How often does drought occur in Colorado?

Historical analysis of precipitation and other drought indices show that drought is a frequent occurrence in Colorado. Short duration drought as defined by the three-month Standardized Precipitation Index (SPI) occur somewhere in Colorado in nearly nine out of every ten years. However, severe, widespread multiyear droughts are much less common. Since 1893, Colorado has experienced seven droughts that are widely considered “severe.” These droughts affected most of the state, involved record-breaking dry spells, and/or lasted for multiple years.

How much rainfall does Colorado receive annually?

Annual precipitation in Colorado averages only 17 inches statewide, with much of the State receiving only 12 – 16 inches annually. In drought years, precipitation is typically only 50 – 80% of average.

What are drought triggers?

A drought trigger is the specific value of a drought indicator that activates a management response. For example, a drought trigger could be a reservoir decreasing below 50% of its storage capacity. In a drought contingency plan, trigger levels can be varied to alter the sensitivity of the response and the effectiveness of the plan. Defining drought triggers can be difficult. Trigger levels change over time, that is, an appropriate trigger level for a particular system may change dramatically if that system has an increase in available infrastructure or if water demands change dramatically. Urban water triggers are often quite different from agriculture drought triggers, as the urban infrastructure can often mitigate the impacts of short-term droughts.

Who monitors drought conditions in Colorado?

The Colorado Climate Center at CSU and USDA-NRCS Colorado Snow Survey monitor climate and snow conditions for Colorado. The U.S. Geological Survey along with the State Engineer’s Office within the Colorado Division of Water Resources track streamflow and ground water. The Water Availability Task Force combines data and expertise from a variety of sources to monitor drought conditions at a statewide level. Local water providers also monitor drought conditions by using data provided by various agencies and also by monitoring conditions within their own watersheds.

Where can I find more information about the drought in Colorado?

The most current information on the severity of the drought can be found at the National Integrated Drought Information System.
Weekly updates are produced by CSUs Colorado Climate Center.
CSU Extension hosts drought information at http://www.ext.colostate.edu/drought/index.html.

How will this drought affect the average Colorado resident?

Water shortages may affect many industries, including farmers, vegetable growers and greenhouses, as well as implications for individuals in urban and rural areas and how they'll use water. Some water users will be impacted more than others. For example, people who farm and ranch with junior irrigation water rights will be adversely impacted by the low snowpack and runoff levels

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Food producers, including farmers and ranchers, may be the most affected by the drought, but urban water users also will experience consequences. Water conservation is an important tool that can help preserve water during a dry year. Some strategies that all citizens can use to contribute to water conservation are to reduce their personal water use at home and on their landscapes. For more information about water conservation in the home and on landscapes, contact the local CSU Extension office, usually listed under the county government section of the local phone book.

What can citizens do to help during the drought?

During times of mandated reductions in water use, do your part to reduce water use. Talk to family members about their water use and ways to reduce it. Another way to help is to track precipitation in your own back yard and share this information with water resources experts. Precipitation is limited and highly variable, so tracking it yourself may help you and your family become more water aware. Colorado State University started a program (Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow network – CoCoRaHS) to encourage volunteer observations.

What can I do to conserve water outdoors?

The most impactful way to reduce water consumption at home is through reducing outdoor landscape watering. Follow local guidelines for outdoor watering and eliminate water overspray on walks, driveways and other hard surfaces.

Consider the following to combat outdoor water waste:

  • Schedule a sprinkler system checkup
  • Retrofit your automatic timer with a smart controller
  • Install appropriate native and xeric landscape plants in hot, sunny areas that are frequently dry http://www.colostate.edu/Depts/CoopExt/4DMG/Xeris/xeris1.htm
  • Mulch all landscape areas that are not grass
  • Allow lawns to go dormant under extreme drought conditions – you can revive it once conditions moderate.

What can I do to conserve water indoors?

Upgrading your indoor fixtures, timing your shower and routinely checking leaks are other positive ways to increase your long-term efficiency and save water – and money – on your monthly water bill. Colorado WaterWise provides resources on conservation at: http://coloradowaterwise.org

Where can I find notice of local municipal watering restrictions?

Check with your local water provider to determine the specific watering restrictions that you must follow. Look under the local or city government section of the local phone book for the water utility or check the web site of the city/water provider where you live. Current drought restrictions are found online at http://www.coh2o.co

Who tracks reservoir levels in Colorado?

The Colorado Division of Water Resources tracks surface water conditions. Drought results in decreased water levels in reservoirs throughout the state. View the current water levels for individual reservoirs at http://www.dwr.state.co.us/Surfacewater/default.aspx

Who tracks snowpack status?

The USDA-NRCS measures snowpack in Colorado. Information can be found at ftp://ftp.wcc.nrcs.usda.gov/data/snow/update/co.txt

What happens to aquifer levels during drought?

It all depends upon the rate of withdrawal. Generally, you can expect groundwater aquifers and your well to decline during drought due to increased pumping to offset lower precipitation, increased heat, and reduced groundwater recharge.

What is the U.S. Drought Monitor and is it relevant to Colorado?

Yes, Colorado experts provide information to help update the U.S. Drought Monitor each week. http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/ This is a credible and very popular source for tracking the development, expansion and retreat of drought conditions anywhere in the U.S. A five-category system is used ranging from D0 describing areas that are abnormally dry (the type of conditions that may be experienced once every 3-5 years) up to category D4 representing “Exceptional Drought” (the type of conditions that may only be experienced roughly once in 50 or more years). The Drought Monitor is a combination of objective climate and surface water data, various drought severity indexes, drought impact information and expert interpretation.

What is Evapotranspiration (ET) and who tracks it?

Evapotranspiration (ET) is the “invisible” part of the water cycle but it is incredibly important. It is the water evaporated from the ground back to the atmosphere both as transpiration from the leaves of plants and also as direct evaporation from open water and soil. By knowing the ET for the last few days or weeks, we can approximate the depletion of water in our soils and estimate the need for irrigation water. Some municipalities have special weather stations to help estimate ET. Colorado State University has a special weather network for this purpose – the Colorado Agricultural Meteorological Network (CoAgMet). The Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District maintains a high quality ET

Can I plant flowers during a drought?

This depends on the stage of the drought. During a Stage 1 or Stage 2 you can plant. Many annuals and perennials require less water than a bluegrass lawn. You can hand water or use gray water between your normal watering days if needed to establish the plants. Be sure to choose water wise or drought resistant plants and group them by their sunlight and water needs.

Should I change my landscape to be xeric because of the drought?

It is not advisable to remove a traditional landscape and replace it with a xeric one during a drought as newly installed plants always need more water. When the drought is over, and no one can predict exactly when that will occur, you should begin adding xeric plants to your yard. How can I find a landscape professional to help me set my sprinkler system clocks, identify drought-resistant plants or answer other questions? Visit www.greenco.org to access experts who can assist you in all the areas of your landscape.

Will climate change lead to more droughts?

Although climate change is expected to lead to slightly more rainfall at the global level, the timing and distribution of that rain is likely to change, increasing the chance of drought in some regions. The details are very difficult to predict, however. This is partly because regional climate impacts are strongly dependent on large-scale atmospheric circulation patterns like the jet stream, which are hard to model in climate simulations.

What is a drought declaration?

Drought declarations are traditionally made by public officials and may be made at the local, state and federal level. In Colorado, the Water Availability Task Force is responsible for assessing drought conditions and recommends to the governor when an official drought declaration should be made. Water providers can also officially declare a drought. Water restrictions and other drought response measures may be enforced following local drought declarations.

Does Colorado have a statewide drought plan?

Yes, the State currently follows the Colorado Drought Mitigation and Response Plan, which was comprehensively updated in 2010. The Plan provides an effective and systematic means for the State to reduce the impacts of water shortages over the short or long term. The plan outlines a mechanism for coordinated drought monitoring, impact assessment, response to emergency drought problems, and mitigation of long term drought impacts. It also describes the communication process for providing drought information to decision-makers.

Are municipalities required to have a state-approved Drought Mitigation Plan? No, currently there is no statutory requirement that any entity have a State-approved Drought Mitigation Plan. However, the CWCB strongly recommends that water providers and state and local governmental entities develop a plan. Drought mitigation planning is critical to preserving essential public services and minimizing the adverse effects of a water supply emergency on public heath and safety, economic activity, environmental resources and individual lifestyles.

What is the difference between Drought Mitigation Planning and Water Conservation Planning?

It is common to confuse drought mitigation planning and water conservation planning.


  • The goal of drought mitigation planning is to ensure an uninterrupted supply of water in an amount sufficient to satisfy essential needs. Drought response measures can include mandatory restrictions on certain water uses, water allocation or the temporary use of an alternative water supply. These measures are intended to be temporary responses to water supply shortages.
  • The goal of water conservation planning is to achieve lasting, long-term improvements in water use efficiency. Water conservation measures can include managing landscape irrigation, implementing conservation water rate structures, replacing or retrofitting water fixtures and similar efforts.

What factors and indices are monitored for possible drought conditions?

Drought indicators are any single observation or combinations of observations that contribute to identifying the onset and/or continuation of a drought. Drought indicators can include measures of streamflow, precipitation, reservoir storage, the Palmer Drought Severity Index, which is a function of precipitation, temperature, and the available water content of the soil, and the Surface Water Supply Index (SWSI) provides and indication of the water supply available for a basin, including reservoir storage which is unique to Western states. The effectiveness of drought indicators depends on the region and the resources. Often, the degree of infrastructure development in a region may define the most appropriate indicators.

How often does the Water Availability Task Force meet?

The Water Availability Task Force (WATF) meets, at a minimum, quarterly throughout the water year (October - September). However, during the months of March - August, the WATF may meet monthly to address and monitor rapidly changing water availability conditions around Colorado. Should drought conditions develop, the WATF will meet more often to monitor and plan for a drought response and needed mitigation activities.

Are the Water Availability Task Force meetings open to the public and can I be notified of the meeting schedule?

Yes, meetings are open to the public and the public is encouraged to attend. To be notified, via email, of the upcoming meeting schedule, please see the CWCB/IBCC Insider page to add your name to our email distribution list.

Updated Tuesday, July 22, 2014