DENVER (CBS4) – Much of Colorado’s fire risk is due to drought conditions settling in over much of the state, and this week Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a major water conservation bill into law.

It’s shaping up as one of the driest years Colorado has seen in a long time. In fact, it could be one of the worst droughts in 10 years, according to the state climatologist. Snowpack is just seven percent of normal, meaning low stream flows. And temperatures are 10 degrees warmer than normal.

While Colorado is used to drought cycles, this year’s is being compared to the 2002 drought that, unlike others, covered the whole state for a whole year. Now Hickenlooper has proclaimed 2012 the year of water in Colorado, but it may go down as the year of drought.

“It’s dry and it’s not going to easily catch up,” state climatologist Nolan Doesken said.

It’s a drought Doeskin fears will be on the order of 2002, the year of the Hayman Fire.

“When you look back to 2002, we only got about one quarter of the average runoff in our major rivers and streams, and that’s the same sort of magnitude we’re looking at, and that’s down there at the level of worst of record,” Doesken said.

The entire state was under extreme drought conditions in 2002. This year more than half the state is already in a drought, and today, if a Hayman-type fire were to break out, there are four million acres of beetle-killed trees to fuel it.

“We must protect our communities, we must protect our watersheds,” said Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village.

Schwartz is taking the lead by pushing a $60 million water bill through the legislature this year. It funds 14 projects, including building two new reservoirs, mitigating dead timber in watersheds, and satellite monitoring of rivers and streams to track how much water is flowing in any given area at any given time.

“Being a headwater state we are required under compacts to deliver water across our state lines to other states,” Schwartz said. “We want to make sure we’re not over-delivering in any one of our basins.”

Storage is the one thing the state has going for it compared to 2002. But Doeskin warns those reserves won’t last long — and without a soaking rain soon, history is likely to repeat.

The concern is Colorado doesn’t typically see a lot of rain in June. The state’s next big chance is monsoon season in July, and by then it could be too late to catch up.

Wildfire Resources

– Visit’s Wildfire Resources section.

– Read recent Wildfire stories.

Wildfire Photo Galleries

– See images from the most destructive wildfire (Fourmile Fire) and largest wildfire (Hayman Fire) in Colorado history.


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