Wyoming’s climate forecast looks drought-free for much of the state
With the high precipitation Wyoming has been seeing these past few weeks, the drought has subsided, and there are only a few areas of the state that are still being slightly impacted, explains Tony Bergantino, service climatologist with the Wyoming State Climate Office (SCO).
“We still have some lingering dry areas through Sweetwater County, Uinta County, the southern portion of Lincoln County and several places in Carbon County that are still in a watch area for drought, but they are not really in a drought,” comments Bergantino. “It’s what we call abnormally dry at the moment.”
The only area in the state of Wyoming that is still experiencing moderate drought conditions is the southwest corner of Uinta County.
“The state as a whole, when looking at the snowpack, is about 135 percent of the median,” explains Bergantino, “which is really good compared to this time last year, when we were down in the 80 percent range.”
“It wasn’t until we got those good snowstorms in the first part of April last year that we actually came up to normal,” adds Bergantino, “but we are well ahead of that at the moment.”
Bergantino comments that a good snowpack will lead to good runoff of water in the spring and will be beneficial in keeping the soil moisture in good standing.
It should also transition more of the abnormally dry areas into being completely drought-free.
“We have some pretty good snowpack building up right now,” says Bergantino. “Some of the basins are moving into almost uncharted areas as far as snowpack, which is going to be good for water supply down the road in spring and summer when the crops can be utilizing it and irrigation can be taking place.”
“Colorado has improved considerably over the last several months from that September flooding they had,” says Bergantino, “but that precipitation really helped us up here, as well.”
Before the high levels of precipitation seen last September, Bergantino described Wyoming as having a lot of moderate drought and severe drought areas throughout the state.
After the storms passed, several drought-impacted areas of Wyoming lessened or cleared up entirely.
“Fortunately, we didn’t receive any of the heavy rains like Boulder, Colo. and those other areas did,” Bergantino adds.
Bergantino added the SCO is always updating results and monitoring Wyoming’s climate.
One of the projects they currently have going on is to try and collect more information about Wyoming’s climate and weather through the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (CoCoRaHs).
CoCoRaHs is comprised of volunteers who place rain gauges in their yards and report their results back to the SCO to help them keep an eye on what the weather in Wyoming is doing.
“This helps us to keep an eye on things where there are no weather stations,” explains Bergantino. “We are equipping volunteers who are across the state and willing to observe and report their findings daily, so we get as near to real time indications of what precipitation patterns are doing and what amounts have fallen in an area.”
“CoCoRaHs members report precipitation levels, so we can see where rain has fallen and what areas are reporting zeros,” describes Bergantino. “Those are the areas we keep an eye on, especially when we are looking at a drought.”
CoCoRaHs is a national effort and was founded in Fort Collins, Colo. at the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University in 1998. This initiative began due to a flood Fort Collins, Colo. encountered in 1997.
The program spread to Wyoming in 2003, and there are approximately 19,000 active observers across the U.S.
“We have a fair number of CoCoRaHs members in Wyoming, but we could always use more, especially with how big this state is,” comments Bergantino. “There’s a lot of open space to cover in this state.”
“Wyoming has been in and out of droughts throughout history,” says Bergantino. “Actually, it is kind of hard to say when a drought is over unless a really good event occurs.”
“There can be severe drought in some areas and light to no drought at all in other parts of the same state,” says Bergantino. “We look at drought levels more in terms of particular areas rather than the state as a whole.”
The SCO uses precipitation reports from the National Weather Service, CoCoRaHs member input, soil moisture monitoring and looking at vegetation levels to determine Wyoming’s climate conditions.
“When we get precipitation, and it just runs off into the river, it doesn’t do much to alleviate the drought,” mentions Bergantino. “But if we can see the precipitation actually going into a soil column and building up a reserve of moisture, we can see what we are doing and have a better idea what’s going on.”
“Hopefully we can all solicit input from interested parties and from various agencies to try and come up with a combined effort of reporting,” comments Bergantino. “It’s always helpful to have that on-the-ground information coming in. That’s what we are trying to establish.”
Categories of drought
“There are four categories to determine drought and one category for abnormally dry conditions,” says Tony Bergantino, service climatologist with the Wyoming State Climate Office.
Designations D-0 through D-4 indicate the level of drought seen in an area.
D-0 describes abnormally dry conditions. Though not necessarily drought conditions, the onset of drought is evident in some areas or the areas are beginning to recover from drought. Under D-0, indicators of drought fall into the 30th percentile, equating to a roughly one-in-three year of dryness.
Moderate drought conditions are described as level D-1. At this level, some damage to crops and pastures can be expected. Fire risk is high, and streams, reservoirs and wells are low. Some water shortages are developing or imminent and voluntary water use restrictions could be requested. Indicators of drought fall into the 20th percentile or a one-in-five year type event.
When D-2, or severe drought, occurs, crop or pasture losses are likely, and risk of fire is very high. Water shortages are common, and water restrictions are usually voluntary or mandated. Indicators of drought are in the 10th percentile and typically equate to a one-in-10 year drought.
Extreme drought is described by a D-3 status, and major crop and pasture losses are seen. Additionally, fire risk is extreme, and widespread water shortages can be expected requiring restrictions. Indicators of drought are in fifth percentile or one-in-20 year type of drought.
D-4 is an exceptional drought, where extraordinary and widespread crop and pasture losses are seen, and fire risk is abundant. There is a shortage of water reservoirs, streams and wells. This level of drought can loosely be likened to a “once-in-a-generation” type of drought. Indicators of drought are in the second percentile and are a one-in-50 year drought.
Flooding in Worland
The central part of Wyoming is not currently classified as being in a drought area, and on Feb. 7 ice jams on the Big Horn River caused flooding to occur in Worland.
The ice jamming under the bridges on the south and west sides of the town resulted in flooding.
“The area of Worland is receiving more precipitation than they need right now,” says Tony Bergantino of the Wyoming State Climate Office. “A lot of the flooding is from the timing of the melt of the snowpacks, and this timing is very critical when it comes to flooding.”
Governor Matt Mead called Wyoming National Guard members to help with the flooding efforts along the Big Horn River and evacuate 80 Worland residents from about 60 homes.
“When there is a rain on snow event, as well as warm to hot days, the snow just starts coming off the mountains in a hurry,” comments Bergantino.
Worland sugarbeet producer John Snyder did have some water running through his fields for a while but has not noticed any damage from the flooding,
“Once the ice broke loose the water levels went back down,” says Snyder.