County facing 'hot drought'


SUBLETTE COUNTY – “Hot drought” sums up in two words what the coming summer – and possibly many seasons beyond – looks like to meteorologists in general and range specialists in particular.

Recently, Jessica Artz of the Sublette County Conservation District addressed an audience curious to learn about “Snowpack and Drought: Navigating a Drying Future in Sublette County.”

Artz began with anecdotal observations about rainless summers, more frequent spring rains, intense winds, quicker melt-off, generally warmer weather and snowstorms in May. One person noticed a lack of “snow that sticks” since 2018.

“As a range specialist that works out in the field with ranchers and talking to people around town, I hear a lot of conversations with people about what they’ve noticed, felt and seen,” she said at the lunchtime conservation at Sublette BOCES.

Wyoming is heating up at higher elevations and the soil is drying out, with more water evaporating and less going downstream to the Colorado River Basin, she said.

The same is true for Sublette County.

Although Sublette County has the luxury of being close to its river headwaters such as the Green, the Colorado River Basin serves seven states and 40 million users who depend on it, Artz explained.

Here, though, earlier runoffs caused by temperature hikes do affect local users who might not be ready to irrigate hayfields, water their gardens and livestock or use for domestic purposes. This water rushes downstream and goes on by, unused, sometimes flooding facilities unable to store it and washing out planted fields, Artz explained.

Wyoming’s annual mean temperature has risen 2.2 degrees from 1920 to 2020, she quoted. The state’s annual springtime temperature is up 2.9 percent.

“Higher temperatures lead to higher evaporation in all its forms,” Artz said.

Besides rising temperatures at higher elevations, precipitation’s timing and location are changing and can to add to drought conditions, according to Artz. Winter and spring precipitation is projected to rise – but in springtime rain on snow brings earlier snowmelt and runoff – as well as increased evaporation.

“Warmer temperatures lead to more rain on snow,” she said. “… The increased evaporation rate due to rising temperatures may increase the rate of soil’s moisture loss and intensity of naturally occurring droughts.”

More precipitation is still not enough to counter evaporation, Artz said. “We’re going to lose so much to evaporation that this might not make actually make much difference for Wyoming in our semi-arid area.”

As an example, since 2000 the Colorado River has 20-percent less water flowing end to end in spite of only a 5-percent decrease in precipitation.

Lakes and reservoirs are shrinking and warmer, shallower waters stagnate and host toxic blue-green algae blooms.

“We never used to think about cyanobacteria (algae blooms) in Sublette County but it’s creeping north and seen more frequently.” 

Artz said Sublette ranchers and others depending on steady water supplies should take stock of climate changes and prepare for new and different scenarios.

Trees are stressed; mature whitebark pines are dying at treeline. More invasive species take root. Drought affects fish spawning health of aquatic systems, even food for songbirds.

In spite of the West’s “aridification,” each year’s weather has the potential to be different – but likely worse – for traditional water users. They should start paying attention and making plans to adapt, she added. 

New normals

Wyoming’s “new normals” are baseline monthly data averages for the past 30 years with 1991-2021 most recent cycle. Artz compared precipitation for that cycle with the past two years to show “big shifts” in when and how much in the past several years.

We’ve had more precipitation in February and we need more in spring and summer for plants and grasses to grow properly, she said.

Last July was hot and dry, “not good heading into fall,” she said. Last September and October precip showed slight increases.

“That’s not when plants are supposed to bloom or seed,” she said. “Plants were thrown off. This directly impacts our plant growth, specially on rangelands that don’t have irrigation or supplemental water coming to them.”

Plan now

Artz urges local water users to “be proactive, not reactive” and accept climate changes will affect them. Understanding how climate changes can affect Sublette County and Wyoming are key to “navigate our drying future better together.”

Both SCCD and Natural Resource Conservation Service programs can help ranchers with drought contingency plans to prepare for the next season’s weather and water. Ranchers might need to evaluate their inventory, for example.

“This year may be completely different than next year,” she said. “We’re going to see a lot of different changes and swings.”

Gardeners can water deeply, 1 to 1-1/2 inches, and less often. Pull weeds that take up precious nutrients and water; mulch 2 to 3 inches wherever possible and avoid herbicides and pesticides during hot dry weather.

Plant “waterwise” native species or xeriscape; use drip or soaker hoses instead of spraying plants, which allows more water to evaporate.

And understand your own water “footprint” as one person, she advised. “We all need to be part of this conversation.”

For more

SCCD’s Jessica Artz posted her 37-minute program of May 27, with helpful charts and online resources at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HIrdoi3yHmA&t=779s.

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