New Mexico is free of drought

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

For the first time in 18 years, New Mexico is drought free – at least for the short term.

The state’s drought map shows no areas of drought or extreme dryness, courtesy of a cool, wet monsoon season, the National Weather Service said Thursday.

That’s a far-sight better than a year ago, when the drought map showed that 87 percent of the state was abnormally dry, 27 percent was in moderate drought, and 1.1 percent was in severe drought.

“This is the first time since the drought monitor started in late 1999 that New Mexico hasn’t had any designation” of drought or abnormal dryness, said Royce Fontenot, senior hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque.

The drought map last week showed a sliver of abnormal dryness in the Bootheel.

The U.S. drought map, which is issued each week, is based on a variety of factors, including rainfall, temperature, soil moisture and field reports from farmers and ranchers, Fontenot said.

Rainfall is the key factor, and New Mexico has enjoyed a decent monsoon this summer, he said. The state’s monsoon season continues through Sept. 30.

Recent rains have turned normally dry foothills into a green garden. Rainfall statewide is particularly good news for ranchers. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

“We’ve had a good monsoon run,” he said. “Your primary driver of drought is precipitation.”

A healthy drought map is particularly good for ranchers who rely on rainfall to green up their range lands, said John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico Water Resources Program. New Mexico also continues to benefit from the best river flows since 2005, which benefits irrigators, he said.

But don’t look for amber waves of grain growing on New Mexico’s fruited plains anytime soon.

The drought monitor map provides a good snapshot of short-term drought conditions, but New Mexico remains locked in a 15-year dry period, as evidenced by historically low water levels at Elephant Butte Reservoir, Fleck said.

“It’s good news in the short term,” Fleck said of the state’s healthy drought map. “But in the long term, we have to remember that this is still a dry state. The kinds of things we’ve been doing to manage in times of scarcity, we can’t let up.”

Elephant Butte Reservoir contained about 300,000 acre-feet of water on Thursday – just a fraction of its storage capacity of just over 2 million acre feet.

“Elephant Butte Reservoir has started filling back up a little,” Fleck said. “But Elephant Butte doesn’t really respond to short-term drought relief like this drought map indicates.”

Elephant Butte Reservoir remained near capacity throughout the 1990s, but levels have dropped sharply since 2000, data shows.

Low levels at Elephant Butte and other New Mexico reservoirs show that the state’s water supply remains precarious, Fleck said.

Monsoons are famous for drenching local areas while leaving others dry, and rainfall has been mixed and highly variable in the Rio Grande Valley.

The Albuquerque International Sunport received 2.2 inches of rainfall in the 60 days ending Tuesday, or 75 percent of normal, according to National Weather Service data. But Albuquerque’s South Valley, adjacent the airport, received nearly 3 inches of rain in that period, or 100 percent of normal, and Sandia Park received more than double that from July 1 to Aug. 20.

The monsoon has soaked eastern New Mexico this year, but has been less generous to the Four Corners, Fontenot said.

Portales reported just over 13 inches of rain in the 60-day period ending Tuesday, or 239 percent of normal.

The Four Corners Regional Airport in Farmington reported just 1.5 inches of rainfall, or 68 percent of normal, in that 60-day period. But Farmington’s Agricultural Science Center just a few miles away reported 2.6 inches – 141 percent of normal.

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