1.0 The Colorado Situation
1.1 The Nature of Drought in Colorado
1.2 A Definition of Drought
1.3 The Problem With Drought
1.4 A Brief History of Drought and Drought Planning in Colorado
1.4.1 Conclusions from Past Drought Efforts
1.4.2 History of Plan Activations
1.4.3 Impacts, Actions, and Lessons Learned


Drought is a natural yet unpredictable occurrence in Colorado. Colorado weather does not provide for a consistent, dependable water supply throughout the year across the state. With Colorado's semi arid and variable climate there will always be some degree of concern for water availability within the state.

The Colorado Drought Mitigation and Response Plan was developed to provide an effective and systematic means for the State of Colorado 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. The Plan does not create a new government entity to deal with drought but provides a means for coordinating the efforts of public and private entities that would be called upon to deal with drought impacts.

There are four components of the Plan: Monitoring, Assessment, Mitigation, and Response. Monitoring is ongoing and accomplished by quarterly meetings of the Water Availability Task Force (WATF). This task force is comprised of Colorado's water supply specialists from State, Local and Federal governments as well as experts in climatology and weather forecasting. This task force monitors snowpack, precipitation, reservoir storage, and streamflow and provides a forum for synthesizing and interpreting water availability information. When the WATF determines drought conditions are reaching significant levels, the chair of the WATF notifies the Governor and recommends activation of the Plan.

Assessment begins with activation of the relevant Impact Task Forces (ITFs). These task forces convene to determine impacts within specific sectors of the environment and economy. Impact Task Forces include Municipal Water, Wildfire Protection, Agricultural Industry, Tourism, Wildlife, Economic Impacts, Energy Loss, and Health. The task forces are described in detail in Annex C.

Assessment coordination is handled by the Review and Reporting Task Force. This task force is comprised of chairpersons of the WATF and the Impact Task Forces. They receive reports from the WATF and ITFs, aggregate assessments and projections, evaluate overall conditions, and develop recommendations for drought response and make timely reports to leadership, the media, the response system and other agencies.

The response process consists of several lead state agencies as well as an Interagency Coordinating Group (IACG). The Plan designates lead agencies, depending on the emergency responses. The IACG is composed of senior management representatives from lead response agencies. The IACG ensures the coordination of drought response activities by these various agencies. Additionally the IACG reviews unmet needs identified by task forces and lead agencies and identifies and recommends means to meet those needs. The IACG coordinates with the Executive Branch and the State Legislature and determines when its own deactivation should occur. Annex D of the Plan contains standard operating procedures for the response lead agencies.

Drought mitigation is an ongoing activity in Colorado through emergency preparedness planning and as a matter of routine water resources policy and management. The Colorado Natural Hazards Mitigation Council addresses mitigation actions and opportunities through working committees comprised of volunteer professionals. The Drought Mitigation Committee includes members of the Water Availability Task Force (WATF), the chairpersons of the impact task forces, and other interested parties and serves as a forum to address drought issues on an ongoing basis, before droughts occur. The Plan lists additional recommendations, with associated lead agencies, to mitigate drought impacts.

The Plan is organized into two chapters: one that addresses the background and need for drought planning in Colorado and another that describes the plan process and long term drought mitigation. Annexes to the plan outline specific duties of the Impact Assessment Task Forces and the Response Lead Agencies. Other annexes compile references to existing drought relief programs, Internet resources, local-level drought plans, and contacts for local government outreach and feedback.

1.0 - The Colorado Situation


Drought is a frequent visitor to our semi-arid state. Annual average precipitation in Colorado is near seventeen inches and yet varies from approximately seven inches in the San Luis Valley to over fifty inches in small areas of the higher mountains in the southern and northern parts of the state (McKee, Doesken and Kleist, 1999). Due to the natural variations in climate and precipitation sources it is rare for all of Colorado to be deficient in moisture at the same time. However single season droughts over some portion of the state are quite common (McKee, Doesken and Kleist, 1999).


Drought is an ambiguous hazard that defies a universal definition. Typically drought is a shortage of water that is associated with a deficiency of precipitation. However, water shortages can be human induced also. Perhaps it is easier to think of drought as being a function of supply versus demand. Drought occurs when a normal amount of moisture is not available to satisfy an area's usual water-consuming activities.


There are several obvious problems with drought, but the initial one is recognizing it. Drying trends tend to be associated with "good" weather. The irony is that too much "good" weather can wreak havoc on the environment, create serious water shortages, and delay or stop business and industry. When droughts occur, the State is impacted with a variety of ambiguous and complex problems, which, if identified and evaluated, can be dealt with in a well organized and cost-efficient way. The most significant impacts which typically confront the State are related to such water intensive activities as: agriculture, wildfire protection, municipal usage, commerce, tourism, recreation and wildlife preservation. A reduction of electric power generation and water quality deterioration are also potential problems.


Several times throughout this century Colorado has experienced conditions of drought. The most dramatic drought periods occurred in the 1930s and 1950s, when many states, Colorado included, were affected for several years at a time. With the understanding that conditions throughout the state vary widely, Table 1 shows five multi year droughts experienced in Colorado since 1893.

Figure 1.1 Colorado's Historical Dry and Wet Periods



1893-1905 X 12
1905-1931 X 26
1931-1941 X 10
1941-1951 X 10
1951-1957 X 6
1957-1959 X 2
1963-1965 X 2
1965-1975 X 10
1975-1978 X 3
1979-1996 X 17

Source: McKee, Doesken and Kleist, 1999

The agriculture business, which is an essential sector of Colorado's economy, suffered severely during the drought of the 1930s. The situation was exacerbated by poor farming techniques, low market prices and a depressed economy. As a consequence, some of the population migrated away from farming. On the other hand, much progress was made towards improving upon the situation: better agricultural management, the establishment of insurance programs, liberalization of credit, and diversification of the regional economy. Other improvements included irrigation, the planting of trees for wind breaks to mitigate soil erosion, and air conditioned tractors to deep dust from the operator. These adjustments moderated the drought in the early 1950s; impacts were much less severe although climatological conditions were not that different from those of the dust bowl era.

The drought of 1976-77 was essentially a winter event and was not long in duration. However, it was the driest winter in recorded history for much of Colorado's high country and western slope, which had serious consequences for the skiing industry. Another drought that began in the fall of 1980 and lasted till summer of 1981 also generated costly impacts on the ski industry and initiated a huge investment in snow making equipment (Mckee, Doesken, and Kleist, 1999). This was the last severe and widespread drought to affect Colorado.

Since 1981 Colorado has been in a sustained overall wet period. A few localized exceptions include significant but brief drought in southwest Colorado during 1989 to 1990, a growing season drought in 1994 in northeast Colorado, and another localized drought in 1994 over southwest Colorado from late 1995 into 1996. The La Nina influenced weather patterns in the winter of 1999 left the statewide snowpack abnormally low as of April 1. While many parts of the country were experiencing drought conditions, abundant moisture in the second half of the 1999 water year resulted in wet conditions over almost all of Colorado (Colorado State University, Colorado Climate Center, 1999).


In the 1976-77 drought, Colorado State government assumed a lead role in coordinating Federal, State and local government response as well as promoting statewide public conservation practices. Conclusions from that effort include:

  • The diversity, complexity, and ambiguity of drought impacts blurred identification of the alternative actions available to decision makers.
  • a systematic development of problem areas and potential solutions was obviously essential to effective government response, so that "under" and "over" reactions could be minimized
  • both physical and social impact data were needed
  • knowledge about the location, kind and degree of water shortage can lead to better identification of the kinds of impacts
  • timely and accurate provisions of data on impact development was crucial to effective response.
  • impacts provide the framework for potential governmental and public adjustments
  • the careful integration of response by private, public and governmental entities was needed
  • as the drought intensifies the maintenance of established channels of responsibility with growing emphasis on water conservation and planning becomes increasingly important
  • as impact problems and local needs became more serious, the need for better management and integration of effort also intensified.
  • Should drought intensify to the point where broad scale impacts exceed the State's response capabilities, an existing and effective State program for the reduction of drought impacts will help facilitate a request for federal assistance.

Governor Lamm took action in February 1981 to initiate the process of dealing with the potential drought situation. This included a planning process in State government to develop means to deal over the long run with water shortage conditions. His memorandum of February 5 required the accomplishment of the following tasks:

(1). Develop and activate a data collection and assessment system which will identify the potential impacts of a drought and track their occurrence and intensity. At some point, this assessment process may result in a recommendation that a drought emergency be proclaimed.

(2). Develop a drought emergency response plan which would be activated by a drought emergency decision. This task includes cataloguing existing state and federal response and relief programs and authorities, and development of recommendations to meet additional needs.

The initial Colorado Drought Response Plan was completed in 1981 and revised in 1986, 1990 and 2000. In 1981 it was one of three state drought plans in the nation. Since that time the plan has received wide distribution and interest both nationally and internationally and has served as a model for other states. Table 2 lists 10 recommended drought preparedness steps (University of Nebraska-Lincoln, National Drought Mitigation Center, 1996) and summarizes the ways that Colorado has dealt with each issue.

Figure 1.2

Recommended Step Colorado
1. Appoint a drought task force. Colorado Natural Hazards Mitigation Council, Drought Mitigation Committee. State Drought Plan Task Forces.
2. Develop drought policy and define the purpose and objectives of the drought plan. This is a continuous process. Current drought policy was reviewed at the Governor's Conference on Flood and Drought, December 2 & 3, 1999. The plan will continue to be updated periodically.
3. Anticipate and resolve conflicts between different water users. Major water users have been identified. Water compacts are in place among neighboring states. Specialized task forces will determine impacts.
4. Identify natural, human and biological resources, as well as financial and legal constraints. Resources, such as reservoirs, have been identified and water levels are monitored. Stream levels and snowpack levels are monitored. Volunteer efforts, such as assistance from local bottling plants, have been utilized. Colorado water law is governed by the Appropriation Doctrine. Some local jurisdictions have developed drought plans. Constraints will be reviewed by task forces.
5. Establish mitigation procedures - monitoring, impact assessment and response. Mitigation procedures established and continue to be implemented.
6. Identify research and institutional needs. Needs are identified by the Drought Mitigation Committee/Impact Task Forces.
7. Integrate science and policy perspectives. Scientists and policy-makers have input into the plan and members of these communities are involved with task forces.
8. Announce and test drought plan. Prior editions and updates to the plan have been published and made available and parts of the plan have been implemented.
9. Teach the general public and the media about drought and water supply. Public awareness campaigns are ongoing. Examples: Governor's Conference on Flood and Drought, December 1999 and the Climatology newsletter named Colorado Climate. The 2000 Update of the Colorado Drought Mitigation and Response Plan is available in hard copy and will be on the Internet. Public Information Brochures have been developed, including "About Drought."
10. Keep the drought plan up to date, and evaluate it after the droughts. The drought plan is currently being updated and evaluated. Most recent version Spring 2000.


Portions of the Drought Response Plan have been activated since its initial development. Some examples include:

1989- As conditions worsened Governor Romer activated the Impact Task Forces and

1990 the Review and Reporting Task Force. Eastern plains dryland farming including the bean, hay and alfalfa crops took the biggest hit. Twenty Colorado counties declared drought disasters due to loss of winter wheat and hay for cattle. Losses to the agricultural community were estimated between seven million to one billion dollars. Emergency water hauling took place for a subdivision in La Plata County and the Towaoc Indian reservation. Wildfires were more prevalent over most of the state, including the devastating Boulder Canyon fire. Much activity was stimulated in the state's drought response system during this time period. This included an increase in funding for drought preparedness activities and other mitigation efforts, including public information brochures and an update of the Drought Response Plan.

1994 In response to extremely arid conditions, the Governor activated several Task Forces to assess impacts, including Agriculture-Blowing Soils, Wildlife, Wildfire, Commerce-Tourism, and Reviewing and Reporting. Significant impacts reported ranged from an increase in wildfires statewide, losses to the winter wheat crop, difficulties with livestock feeding, and impacts to the state's fisheries.

1996 The Municipal Water Task Force was activated to review task force responsibilities under the plan and evaluate the potential impacts to potable water supplies in the southwest and northwest portions of the state. The State Drought Review and Reporting Task Force provided a Drought Status Report to the Governor's Office. The situation called for continued monitoring by the Water Availability Task Force.


Recently, Colorado participated in a multi-state survey project conducted by the Western Drought Coordination Council. The survey was completed in 1999 and is titled Historical Drought Survey of Recently Impacted States. The purpose was to collect historical drought information regarding impacts and actions taken. As a result, information was collected from western states and others across the nation which highlighted actions that were taken during times of dry conditions. The information was organized by major impact sectors: Agriculture, Drought Management, Water Resources, Wildfire - Forest Health, Natural Resources, Health - Environment, Commerce - Economic, and Tourism - Recreation. Each impact sector was further divided by section: Economic Impacts, Environmental Impacts, Social Impacts and Lessons Learned. Examples of Colorado responses are listed Annex A2. Lessons learned in previous droughts will enable Colorado to anticipate drought problems and response or mitigation actions.


Colorado Division of Disaster Emergency Services, About Drought, 1989.

McKee, Thomas B., Nolan J. Doesken, John Kleist, Historical Dry and Wet Periods In Colorado, Climatology Report No. 99-1 A, Part B: Appendices, Dept of Atmospheric Science, Colorado State University; 1999.

McKee, Thomas B., Nolan J. Doesken, John Kleist, with Catherine J. Shrier and William P. Stanton, "A History of Drought in Colorado: Lessons Learned and What Lies Ahead" Water in the Balance No. 9, December 1999, Colorado Water Resources Research Institute, Colorado State University, 1999.

Stanton, W.P., Luckie, K., and Busto, J., Survey of Drought Planning in Colorado, Colorado Water Conservation Board, Dept of Natural Resources, Denver, CO, 2000.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln, National Drought Mitigation Center, Basics of Drought Planning, 1996.

Western Drought Coordination Council. "Recently Impacted States Historical Drought Information" Western Drought Coordination Council Drought Response Working Group, 1999.

Woodhouse, Connie A., "A Tree Ring Reconstruction of Stream Flow for the Colorado Front Range", Journal of the American Water Resources Association (in review 2000).

Knutson, Cody, Hayes, Mike, Phillips, Tom. How to Reduce Drought Risk. Western Drought Coordination Council, 1998.

Prepared by Colorado Department of Local Affairs
Division of Local Government
Office of Emergency Management

J. Truby, L Boulas 1981 Revised in 1986 to meetnational and worldwide demand

Revised by J. Truby, L Boulas, R. Kistner in 1990.

Revised by J. Brislawn, M. Gally, L. Boulas in 2000

Funding for this production of this document provided by the State of Colorado
and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

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