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The sunny side

Colorado's rain may be dreary and damaging, but it brings some bright spots



The difference is obvious on a May hike through North Cheyenne Cañon.

Stream beds once so dry they looked like geologic fossils now flow with bubbling streams. Big and small waterfalls litter a landscape turned shocking green with moss. Small plants and shrubs burst from the ground, and in some shady spots saplings are crowded so close they form woodland hedges. Old trees shimmer with wet bark, the Pikes Peak granite soil is drenched, and the air is heavy.

Gray clouds, moving swiftly across the hills, promise even more rain is on the way.

May was the wettest month on record in Colorado Springs, and, for many residents, the most miserable. The rain — which continued into June — has worsened an already horrendous pothole season and delayed road repairs. It's led to landslides, caused retaining walls to fall off hillsides, and resulted in rockfalls on roads. It's choked creeks with sediment — just in time for the summer monsoon season, when flash floods become a major concern. It's washed out trails, closed Red Rock Canyon Open Space, flooded basements, and ruined many a Memorial Day weekend plan. In short, it's been a multimillion-dollar downer.

"I think that we can say that the drought is over," County Commissioner Darryl Glenn says, noting that the county has struggled to get a solid estimate of the damage caused by the rain — because it won't stop raining. "I think that next year we'll have locusts."

It's safe to say most people haven't been loving the weather. But it hasn't been without its beneficiaries.

City Forester Dennis Will says all this rain has "recharged the soil" after a decade of drought, soaking perhaps 18 or 20 inches deep and reaching parched tree roots.

The water couldn't have come at a better time for late bloomers like aspen, Siberian elm and Gambel oak, which need extra moisture to shake off dormancy. It's especially crucial this year, Will says, because a hard freeze last November caught many trees off guard. Deciduous trees didn't have time to recover moisture from leaves before the leaves froze and fell off. Likewise, many coniferous trees had yet to go through their normal process of withdrawing water from needles in preparation for winter, and the frozen needles died. The cold also killed the beginnings of buds that form in fall.

The freeze, in other words, left trees vulnerable or damaged — and thus susceptible to life-threatening bugs, such as boring beetles.

Water, Will says, will help trees resist such invasions, heal damage, and form new "emergency buds." In fact, there could be enough water this year to cause coning trees — which only produce when they have enough moisture — to finally produce seeds.

"There's decades where we wouldn't see a cone in a long time," he says.

Lisa Mason, outreach forester with the Colorado State Forest Service, says forests across the state are reaping many of the same benefits. While the mountain pine beetle, which left huge swaths of Colorado forest brown in past years, is already in decline, Mason says the rain could further fortify trees against infection. Also, Mason says, "Rain is always good to help with fire danger."

But, she warns, "It's almost more of a temporary thing, because as summer heats up, things can get dry very quickly." She and Will agree that all those plants growing quickly today could lead to increased fire danger if the rain stops.

On the flipside, Will points out, if the rain continues some trees could drown — especially if they're growing in clay-based soils that are common in city parks. Obviously, there's also a risk of destructive floods, especially near the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest burn scars.

Carol Ekarius, executive director of the Coalition for the Upper South Platte, which does burn scar mitigation work, says slow, steady rains can benefit the scars by encouraging plant growth. But if the ground is already saturated, and then it's hit by monsoon summer rains, both soil and water could come tumbling into towns and cities.

"I think it could be a very troubling summer," she says.

Colorado Springs Utilities could lose infrastructure in such floods, but for now it's seeing benefits from the rain.

Abby Ortega, Utilities planning supervisor in the Water Supply Department, says rain usually doesn't have a meaningful impact on water supplies; snow melt determines how full reservoirs are. But with over 8 inches of rain in May alone, Utilities' lower reservoirs are filling up. Rampart Reservoir, in particular, is so full that Utilities is no longer pumping water into it.

Local system storage is at 90 percent capacity, compared to an 82 percent average for this time of year. Because snow in the high country hasn't yet completely melted, upper reservoirs haven't seen the same boost, but Ortega says Utilities is expecting all its reservoirs to fill to operational capacity this year. That's quite an improvement from a low point in 2013, when storage was at 48 percent of capacity.

The rain has also diminished demand for water. One May report found that Utilities customers were using about half the water they had at the same time in 2014.

Downstream water users, too, are benefiting from the rain. Steve Witte, Division 2 engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources, says the John Martin Reservoir near Las Animas has over 150,000 acre feet of water. Last year at the same time, it had about 26,000 acre feet. (Its capacity is about 350,000 acre feet, but it rarely fills.) John Martin is used almost entirely for agriculture, with 60 percent going to Colorado farmers and 40 percent going to Kansas farmers.

Water, Witte says, is largely flowing to reservoirs and other storage facilities, instead of into irrigation canals, because farmers don't need the water yet. "The rains have been not only frequent but also fairly widespread," he says. "So the result of that is a lot of the fields are pretty well saturated, which is a good thing. The prairies are looking good in terms of range land."

Dale Mauch, who farms about 3,500 acres near Lamar, says this is the first time he'll be able to plant a crop in several years; his land has previously been too dry. He hasn't seen this much rain in nearly 20 years, and he notes that small area reservoirs that haven't seen water in 15 years are filling. There's been so much rain, he says, that fields are just now drying out enough to plant. At one point in May, Mauch's fields were watered with six straight days of rain.

"I've been farming 40 years," he says, "and I can't remember six days of rain in a row."

This year, he's planning to plant corn, milo, wheat and hay. Prices for the crops — with the exception of milo — aren't high these days. But that hasn't dampened his spirits. A cheap crop, he says, is better than no crop at all.

"It sure is nice to do what we're supposed to do," he says, "and that is to plant a crop every year."

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