Moisture needed to improve drought conditions

Snowpack at 36 percent of normal in river basins

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times
The sun moves across a the Glade Run Recreation Area on Wednesday north of Farmington, which is in a drought because of an unseasonably dry and warm winter.
  • San Juan County Fire Chief Craig Daugherty warns about the dangers of fireplace ashes.
  • Officials are hoping for spring moisture to end the drought.
  • Farmington Public Works director David Sypher said he is planning to give a presentation to the City Council about the city’s ordinances regarding drought.

FARMINGTON — Drought conditions in San Juan County have worsened over the course of 2018, and short-term forecasts are not predicting any relief from the situation.

Different drought indexes place the county in either moderate or severe drought. According to the Palmer index, which Farmington uses to monitor drought, the area is in a moderate drought. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the county is in a severe drought, and those conditions have become worse over the course of what has been an unseasonably dry and warm winter.

While the drought conditions have worsened since the start of the year, officials say it is still too early to tell what that may mean for water and fire conditions for the rest of the year.

Farmington Public Works director David Sypher said he is planning to give a presentation to the City Council during its 9 a.m. Feb. 20 work session about the city’s ordinances regarding drought.

Sypher said the city has done what it can to prepare to meet demand if no significant moisture comes to the area in the upcoming months.

“We’re hopeful that we’ll get a turnaround in the next month or two,” he said.

Sypher said Farmington Lake, which stores the drinking water for the city of Farmington, is full, and the stream flow in the Animas River is good.

A spark from ashes from a wood-burning stove ignited a Jan. 20 blaze in Bloomfield. Firefighters are concerned about dry conditions in San Juan County.

One concern is that Farmington relies on surface water from the Animas River, which feeds Farmington Lake. That surface water is dependent on the snowpack in Colorado.

Currently, the snowpack in the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan River basins is at 36 percent of normal, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service.

San Juan County Fire Chief Craig Daugherty said it is too early to predict how severe the fire season could be this year. However, Daugherty said if the county does not get moisture “we’ll definitely be in a world of hurt” when the fire season gets under way.

Daugherty said the county is already seeing wildland fires. He said the wildland fires are not uncommon for dry Januaries, but it does seem like this year has been busier than in the past.

Limited snowpack in the La Plata Mountains is seen on Wednesday from the Glade Run Recreation Area north of Farmington.

Part of the danger is caused by vegetation that grew last year during the wet spring.

Daugherty said property owners should keep weeds down, mow their grass and thin the brush around their houses. He also encouraged people to be careful about burning and to call San Juan County Fire Department before burning vegetation.

Daugherty said he has noticed a higher-than-normal occurrence of fires sparked by people disposing of ashes from their fireplace.

One such incident happened on Jan. 20 in Bloomfield. The fire burned between 40 and 50 acres before it was extinguished. Bloomfield Fire Chief John Mohler said the fire illustrates the problems that can develop because of dry weather.

He said a resident cleaned out a wood-burning stove and placed the coals in a bucket. The wind blew the bucket over, and the sparks ignited the dry vegetation.

A member of the San Juan County Fire Department sets a back burn on Jan. 20 as crew members work to contain a wildfire in Bloomfield that was sparked by fireplace ashes.

"If we don't get some rain, that's going to be the standard," Mohler said.

However, Mohler agreed that it is still too early to determine how the fire season will play out this year.

He said there have been years when a dry winter was followed by a lot of snow in March.

Daugherty said the lack of snow this year, combined with the abundance of vegetation, has created a situation in which fireplace ashes easily can spark wildfires.

He said people who are disposing of ashes from their fireplace should keep the ashes in metal buckets until they cool or put water in the bucket to cool down the ashes. Daugherty said people should not put ashes in plastic containers.

Daugherty said fire conditions could change if spring storms bring additional moisture.

“It’s definitely going to be concerning if we don’t see some spring moisture,” he said.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at