2012 brought Colorado one of the worst droughts in its history, causing low rivers, scant snowpack and wildfires across the state this past summer.
The Aspen area prepared itself for the worst as summer began, readying evacuation plans and taking precautions against fire. The snow had stopped falling in March and temperatures soared above average through a hot and dry April, May and June.
“Everything is lining up for a fire season that could be very volatile,” forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams told the Pitkin County commissioners, in one of countless emergency planning and drought meetings last spring and early summer.
Thankfully, the valley escaped major catastrophe. But the effect of the drought was still far-reaching, from the early dry spring that led to an early end to ski season, to the delayed opening of skiing terrain last month.
The U.S. Forest Service, Pitkin County and Bureau of Land Management all ordered burn bans last spring, as the local forest dried out and turned to tinder. That prohibited campfires and the use of charcoal grills for much of the summer. It also nixed the annual fireworks displays over Aspen Mountain for the Food & Wine Classic and Fourth of July.
The annual dawn Fourth of July cannon blast from the Smuggler Mine also was a casualty of the drought. The Smuggler crew made due by blowing an antique mining whistle instead — it did the job, waking up all of downtown Aspen with no fire risk.
Aspen City Council declared a stage 1 water shortage in June, and prepared for water rationing, but the severity of the drought lessened before that was necessary.
Some rain returned to the area in July, allowing the burn bans and water shortage to be lifted by the end of summer.
Local streams and rivers were reduced to a trickle. The Roaring Fork River was running at 23 cubic feet per second (cfs) in July, a fraction of its 115 cfs summer average. In late November, it was flowing at 18 cfs. For much of the year, stream and river levels stayed below the 32 cfs recommended by the state to maintain fish and river health.
Soil moisture content in May on the local landscape stood between 5 and 10 percent. The average is 60 to 70 percent.
A study from researchers at Stanford University and the University of Utah concluded that such periods of drought have caused sudden aspen decline (SAD), the epidemic that has killed nearly one-fifth of Colorado’s aspens and provides an existential threat to Aspen’s aspens.
If climate change brings more frequent drought to the Aspen area, the future of skiing also is in question.
While wildfires didn’t plague the local forest as many feared, the extreme nature of the drought is likely to affect the local landscape, water and wildlife well into the future.