How Dry They Are

There is an unusual quiet in Denver's parks these days. Golf courses that normally are open in winter have closed. Except for scavenging crows, birds aren't heard often.

They are all signs of a dry winter that is failing to ease record drought conditions across the West. Every Western state from Colorado to the West Coast is experiencing some degree of drought. Colorado is coping with the worst drought since record-keeping began in the 1890s.

The snowpack, which supplies 70 percent or more of the surface water in most Western states, was between 60 percent and 80 percent of average throughout the West as of the end of January.

El Nino, the weather phenomenon in the Pacific, may come to the rescue of the southern half of the region, at least temporarily and earlier than expected, said climatologist Klaus Wolter of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder.

He had predicted that it would not have much impact until March or April. Last week he said it could start this month.

But while spring storms will be critical to decisions on how stiff water rationing will be this summer, Wolter said the storms will not erase a drought that has been building for years.

Cities are making contingency plans.

Metropolitan Denver cities have ordered golf courses closed and declared off-limits some recreation fields. Winter bans on outdoor watering could be extended into spring.

Las Vegas is imposing some watering restrictions and Phoenix is asking customers to voluntarily cut water use by 5 percent.

In Southern California, water managers have been ordered by the Interior Department to stop taking more than their share of water from the Colorado River. Water agencies are in the process of approving plans to subsidize plants that would desalinize sea water.

Northwestern states, in most El Nino years, see less precipitation than normal. In Washington and Oregon, electricity prices may rise because a low snowpack would mean less runoff for power-generating dams.

In Montana, the state's cattle and calf numbers are at their lowest level in 11 years. Ranchers have had to cut their herds because of poor grazing conditions.

Gary Beach, Wyoming's Water Quality Division administrator, has warned towns along the North Platte and Little Snake rivers "to do some serious drought planning in case they run out of water this summer."

Bird watcher Hugh Kingery usually sees five or six Townsend Solitaires around his suburban Denver home. "This month, we are only seeing one, and only once in a while," he said.

He says the Townsend Solitaire depends on berries on the juniper tree. The trees are surviving the drought, but are bereft of berries.

Numbers of the lark bunting, the state bird, are down because prairie grass didn't grow enough to support breeding. A Christmas survey in the Denver area found the bird population was only 72 percent of average, a figure that nearly mirrors the state's snowpack, he said.

Bird numbers have declined at least 10 percent throughout the West after five years of abnormally low rainfall, says the National Aububon Society. Crows, expert scavengers, are flourishing.

Ken Strom of the Audubon Society said the birds may be giving a warning to fast-growing Western areas where new housing is outstripping water supplies, just as they tipped the nation off to the dangers of pesticides like DDT in the 1960s.

"Just as with DDT, birds can alert us to a problem before it becomes deadly to us," said Strom.

By Robert Weller