Drought fears take hold in Four Corners region already hit hard by the coronavirus

(John Locher | AP file photo) What was once a marina sits high and dry due to Lake Mead receding in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Arizona on July 16, 2014.

The vintage train was chug-chug-chugging its usual route out of Durango, Colo., that sunny morning as tourists marveled at the postcard-pretty canyon. Just a few miles closer to Silverton, a plume of smoke started rising from the steep hillside.

Within minutes, a good Samaritan tried to douse the flames, state and federal court documents say. Three separate efforts by the scenic railroad company — including one involving a helicopter — tried to put out the flames, too. But the blaze burned out of control within minutes. By the time wildland firefighters finally extinguished the fire six months later, 54,000 acres, an area larger than the nearby Mesa Verde National Park, had been charred and recorded as Colorado’s sixth worst wildfire.

The 416 Fire, as the blaze came to be known, started two years ago. And the idea that ordinary activities like the operations of a charming tourist attraction could be so destructive is, perhaps, part of a new reality that’s taking hold in the Southwest in a warming climate.

Drought is once again front of mind for rural leaders like Mineral County Commissioner Ramona Weber, who’s been talking with colleagues about the threat of water shortages and heightened wildfire risk. It’s also something New Mexico farmer Jim Enote has thought about this year while using his hands to check the soil’s temperature and moisture before planting, following the age-old habit of his Zuni ancestors.

In Durango, more than three dozen businesses and property owners have gone to court seeking compensation from the scenic railroad company and its operators over damage from the 416 Fire. One of their lead attorneys, Durango-raised Bobby Duthie, considers the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad's whistle a daily fixture in his life, but he also wants its operations to change in response to the warming environment.

“As things get drier, it’s more and more dangerous,” said Duthie, who adds that simple fixes might include using oil for fuel or idling the train during dry times. “That’s pretty self-evident when you’re paying attention to climate change.”

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) A map at a press conference held on Thursday, May 3, 2018, predicted drought for southern Utah and the Four Corners region.

In the wake of new research on megadrought in the West, and after an exceptionally dry spring, the Four Corners region is headed into the summer of 2020 with deep uncertainty. On top of the disruption from the coronavirus pandemic, summer forecasts suggest yet more heat waves, wildfires and water supply shortages.

A recent study in the journal Science concluded that global warming is responsible for about half the severity of the emerging megadrought, leaving the soil and vegetation parched and streams running low. Megadroughts are defined as dry periods lasting 20 years or more.

“My gut is that we are really at the beginning, that it’s going to get worse,” said Becky Bolinger, assistant state climatologist for Colorado. “I hope I’m wrong.”

Fire, water worries

Ponderosa pine forests, redrock canyons and rolling desert vary the terrain in the region where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah meet. But heading into the summer, the water situation is grimly similar throughout the Four Corners.

Streams are projected to run about half full, and ranchers, farmers and communities dotting the area will be forced to rely on groundwater and will likely face restrictions. And the praying has already started for generous monsoon rains to bring relief soon.

The latest U.S. Drought Monitor shows a growing area of abnormally dry to severe drought conditions in the Four Corners as vast areas of “extreme drought” grow along Colorado’s borders with New Mexico and Nebraska. Moderate to extreme drought now covers more than two-thirds of Colorado, Utah and Nevada, and parts of northern Arizona and New Mexico.

Nearly 4.7 million people live in these drought-stricken areas, including the entire Navajo Nation reservation, where the battle to slow the spread of the coronavirus has been underway for months.

The combination of scant water and unusually high temperatures has left vegetation parched. “Crispy” is the word Bolinger recently used in a tweet to describe her state. For much of Utah, Nevada and northern New Mexico, vegetation is similarly dry.

These conditions are actually more widespread than they were two years ago, when the 416 Fire broke out, and they appear to be part of an emerging and troubling climate pattern: the kind of fire-prone landscape that, according to Duthie's civil suit, resulted in 32 fires allegedly ignited by the coal-fired steam train in the weeks before the 416 Fire.

And those train-sparked fires weren’t a new development either, according to an analysis by The Durango Herald. The newspaper tallied $609,000 that the train’s owners had been forced to shell out for firefighting costs in connection with five previous fires over the past two decades. And just last week, a federal judge allowed the U.S. Justice Department to proceed with its own suit seeking a sixth payout to recoup $25 million in costs associated with the 416 Fire.

Owners of the Durango-to-Silverton scenic railroad did not respond to calls for comment.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Firefighters control the Tollgate Canyon fire as it burns near Wanship, Utah, on July 30, 2018.

Forecasters say 2020 could bring another busy wildfire season, which officially began last Monday. The potential for significant wildfires, they say, is above normal through August.

In early May, like many county officials in the Four Corners, leaders of the Southern Ute Tribe issued a fire ban throughout the reservation along the southern Colorado border: Burning waste, agricultural burning, fireworks and all campfires except for sweat ceremonies are prohibited. The Navajo Nation also implemented a fire ban last month.

In nearby Mineral County, Colo., people are on alert, said Commissioner Ramona Weber, who also owns the Wild Beaver Mountain Man Emporium in Creede. With the make-or-break tourist season underway and coronavirus restrictions already threatening to scare away visitors, businesses worry about the drought.

Normally, the Rio Grande National Forest, which occupies all but 5% of the county, is a big draw for people looking to enjoy the cool summer weather at 8,800 feet elevation and the headwaters of the Rio Grande River, she said.

But this year, people are talking about the possibility of another big wildfire. Back in 2013, locals faced the second-largest wildfire in Colorado history, the 110,405-acre West Fork Complex. And, a few weeks after smoke from the 416 Fire drifted 50 miles east and drove away tourists in Mineral County, the state’s third-largest wildfire, the Spring Creek Fire, grew to 108,000 acres.

“Especially with COVID, it changes the way we look at fire,” said Weber, whose county has seen two cases but no deaths since the pandemic began.

She’s heard that the concept of allowing some fires to help heal the forest has given way this year to a firefighting strategy of rapid attack — keeping fires as small as possible to ease pressure on medical and emergency services that might be needed for the pandemic.

"You can't relax because you're always looking for that wisp of smoke," Weber added. "We're praying for rain."

How hot and dry will it be?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center forecasts a good chance of a hotter-than-normal summer (60% to 70% likelihood) and drier than normal (40% to 50% likelihood).

Brent Bernard, hydrologist for the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center, said the data suggests to him that this summer could rival epic drought years — among the top 10 in 125 years of historical record-keeping. He pointed to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s most recent 24-month study of the Colorado River Basin, which found that flow into Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border was above average in only four of the past 19 years.

And the water supply forecast for the Colorado River at Glen Canyon Dam estimates that just 57% of normal flow will be available to recharge the reservoir this year.

“This year’s not in the books yet,” Bernard said, “but it’s really looking dry.”

In contrast, Jordan A. Clayton, data officer for the U.S. Agriculture Department's Snow Survey in Salt Lake City, said the forecast might suggest low runoff, but the statistics don't suggest to him that southeastern Utah will suffer that sort of severe drought.

"We're not seeing anything like those worst years," he said.

Bolinger, Colorado's assistant climatologist, described a kind of middle ground. Pointing to good soil moisture and decent reservoir levels after 2019, she also doubts that 2020 will be among the worst drought years in the Four Corners.

But she does see some concerning, long-term climate signals. Twenty-year trend data shows the pace of drought is picking up, which gives people and the environment less time to recover before they’re fighting to keep their crops alive and to minimize fire hazards.

"One of the hardest things about drought is you can't say what kind of drought you're in until it's over," Bolinger noted. "It's really hard to assess when you are in the middle of it."

At Trout Unlimited, plans are to press forward with projects to help fish cope with the environmental changes that are already underway, said Helen Neville, senior scientist for the conservation group.

Streams are drying up and native trout species are trying to survive threats from nonnative species like browns and rainbows. It used to be that trout could escape to an upstream tributary or pool, she said. Now Trout Unlimited has a program to physically move struggling trout to safety where they can breed and diversify their populations.

"We have already changed the landscape so much," Neville said. "They're dealing with so much stress already."

In New Mexico, Jim Enote doesn’t need data to convince him the world is changing. He described “an almanac in my mind” that informs how he’s worked the land over the past 63 years, which he calls a “relatively short lifetime.” He sees leaner snowpacks and drying natural springs, especially over the past 20 years.

“We’ve been monitoring climate for a long time,” he said. “When the prairie dogs wake up from their winter dreams, when I see the first ants emerging from the ground, when I see the first arrival of the turkey vultures and hummingbirds — all these things tell me something about when to plant.”

Enote said the backdrop of COVID-19 is a good time to remember that native peoples have long recognized the shared responsibility of protecting the land is inseparable from food and water security. That’s the driver behind the Colorado Plateau Foundation, a nonprofit he leads that funds initiatives led by members of the region’s nine tribes.

The lessons of native people who have, in some cases, survived thousands of years of climate changes in the region’s mountains and deserts and canyons, are recorded on redrock cliff walls, in ceramics, songs and languages, he said.

“In truth, we’re not very resilient — our economic systems are quite fragile” in contemporary society, said Enote, whose foundation focuses on water and sustainable agriculture projects. “We’re all witness to that now, and so we [at the foundation] are about helping to get people back on track for the long term.”

Duthie, the Durango lawyer, also wants change for the future. The railroad case was originally set for trial in September, but the coronavirus has bumped it to next year, along with any court-ordered fixes in scenic railroad operations.

Even though no lives or structures were lost in the 416 Fire, its lingering harm will affect business revenue and land value for years to come. The flames burned so hot, the soil itself is damaged, he said. Steep mountainsides now repel rain and snowmelt rather than soaking it up, so flooding and mudslides will likely continue for years.

Duthie said he’s still nostalgic about the train whistle, how rain often cooled Durango in the afternoons when he was growing up and how air conditioners weren’t needed before the summers got so toasty. He says the changing climate is a factor in the railroad case — and it should be in the future operation of the railroad, too, to account for the realities of today.

Editor’s note • The Salt Lake Tribune is a content-sharing partner with InsideClimate News, a Pulitzer Prize-winning nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that provides essential reporting and analysis on climate, energy and the environment. Learn more at insideclimatenews.org.