Determining Drought History

Reader Contribution by Bruce Mcelmurray
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When beautiful views and panoramic scenes are shown of Colorado few people realize that Colorado is actually a semi arid state. We are frequently in a drought situation and sometimes we are hardly even aware of it because the drought area will be in different parts of the state on different years.  Last year it was extremely dry in the northern part of the state and here in the southern part of the state we had abundant snow and rain.  That was evidenced by the numerous wildfires occurring in the northern tier of the state. Because of the sporadic rain and snow it is very easy to lose track of which weather pattern we are in.  Our average snowfall at 9750’ in elevation is 264” per year and we only received half that amount last winter. Tree rings hold the answer and when we had a large tree topple over it was interesting to check the annual growth  rings when we cut it up into firewood.

Living in a semi arid state can have associated problems, especially since Colorado is primarily an outdoor state where people are hiking, skiing, snowshoeing or enjoying water sports outside most of the year. Perhaps that is one reason people seem more healthy here due to all the outdoor activities. Being outside all the time in the abundant sunshine can make a person forget that moisture is pretty rare and hence things get very dry. Skin moisturizer is as standard in Colorado as sun screen. I’m sure that there is a small segment of our population that spends a good deal of time inside but by doing so you to miss the very best features of our beautiful state. 

One way to see how arid  Colorado is would be to count the rings on a tree. As evidenced in the photo this tree was approximately 105+ years old. It is a section from an aspen tree that blew over last summer. The aspen does not have a deep tap root and the roots tend to spread out creating a family of trees. New trees sprout up from the root system and sometimes when the ground gets wet and loosens the soil, a good strong wind can blow the tree over. In trying to count the rings on this tree it appears the first 20 years of its life had two very severe droughts where the rings are so close together I could not count them even with a magnifying glass. During that time it was a struggle for this tree to survive. With so many trees all depending on the same root system all the trees within that system are experiencing the same drought conditions.

In counting tree rings it is easy to see that the number of dry years exceeded the moisture-abundant years for this tree. This particular tree may have done as well as it did because one of the two springs that flow year around on our property drains in the area where this tree grew. The tree rings tell the true story however; there were periods of good growth where rain and snow were adequate and several periods where the tree barely grew and struggled to survive. We are currently in one of those severe drought periods and nothing can be done about it except wait for it to end. As I walk around our property each day and observe the trees and undergrowth it is sometimes hard to see evidence of drought. This year however we have no wild flowers (including columbine) because of no moisture. Our lakes are nearly dry and the soil is more powder than top soil. While we wait for the drought to end we do what we can to mitigate our property against our worst hazard which is wildfire. 

Drought or no drought we enjoy living here and have learned to accept drought conditions along with abundant rain/snow. Being outdoors much of the time makes living in a semi arid state more than worth while. Homesteading in the mountains holds special benefits like cool summers, fresh air, pure water and plenty of outdoor activity. Living in a semi arid area in a minor inconvenience compared to the many other benefits.

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