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Drought returns to New Mexico

Roberto E. Rosales/Journal

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Ah, winter in New Mexico.

Snowcapped mountains, frosty windows, squeaky shoes across a blanket of white and drooping evergreens laden with icicles.

Not this year.

The lackluster winter snowpack means less spring runoff to feed the state’s rivers, less water available to recharge the state’s reservoirs, a greater chance for a hellish fire season and a defrosted ski industry.

More than 93 percent of New Mexico is experiencing drought conditions, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s drought monitor map, released Thursday.

Of that 93 percent, about 60 percent is categorized as severe drought, nearly 34 percent as moderate drought and less than 6.5 percent is classified as abnormally dry.

Last year at this time, only 2.5 percent of the state was considered to be in severe drought and less than 9.5 percent was considered abnormally dry – but that was not a typical year for New Mexico, which recently has had long dry periods.

“We look at precipitation and temperature and other factors and try to tie it into impacts,” said Royce Fontenot, senior hydrologist with the Albuquerque office of the National Weather Service. “The late monsoon season was pretty good for most of the state, particularly the eastern plains.

“But then around Oct. 10, it was like someone turned off the tap,” he said. “Southwest New Mexico did a bit better, but for the most part, the rain just stopped and the La Niña took full grip.”

During a La Niña weather cycle, the water surface temperature of the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean is colder than normal in the fall and winter months, setting up a jet stream pattern that generally pushes winter storms north of New Mexico and farther east.

The visible impact is that snow is well below normal for every basin that affects New Mexico and southern Colorado, Fontenot said.

For example, the Rio Chama Basin is 33 percent of normal; the Pecos Basin is 8 percent of normal; the Gila River Basin is 13 percent of normal; the Sangre de Cristo Mountains are 26 percent of normal; and the headwaters for the Rio Grande in Colorado are 37 percent of normal.

“The seasonal outlook is continued La Niña through early spring, so continued warmer and drier than normal,” Fontenot said.

New Mexico would need to get precipitation about 215 percent of normal just to get to normal in the upper Rio Grande, and 270 percent of normal on the lower Rio Grande.

In other words, “the switch would have to be turned back on, and it would have to be a fire hose.”

Unless drought conditions turn around, said Matt Rau, fire staff officer for the Cibola National Forest and Grasslands, “our prediction is for an early onset to fire season across the majority of New Mexico, particularly the central and south, and a potential for increased size of fires and more intense fires.”

When monsoon rains in New Mexico are abundant, the moisture results in a prodigious growth of grass and brush, “which translates to having a lot of available fire-carrying fuels to burn.” But the moisture in the growth and in the soil helps to moderate what fires we do have, Rau said.

A good winter snowpack compacts the grass, while a poor or nonexistent snowpack leaves the grasses standing and makes them more of a fire hazard.

That noncompacted grass situation is what much of the state is facing.

“We are preparing for an early and active fire season and bringing some Hotshot and engine crews on earlier than normal,” Rau said. “Here on the Cibola, we’re bringing on folks up to a month earlier. They will be in place by the end of February instead of the end of March.”

The dearth of snow has also affected the state’s ski areas. The Ski New Mexico website recorded daytime temperatures ranging from a low of 33 degrees in Taos to highs of 51 degrees at Ski Santa Fe and Sandia Peak. Bases ranged from 24 inches at Ski Santa Fe to 12 inches at Angel Fire and Pajarito.

At Angel Fire, only 11 of 81 runs were open; at Pajarito, one of 43 were open; at Red River, 20 of 63; Sandia reported none of 39 were open; Sipapu reported 14 of 43 open; Ski Apache, four of 55; Ski Santa Fe, 18 of 83; and Taos, 20 of 111 runs were open.

If there is good news, it’s that the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, the entity that moves irrigation water to agriculture lands during the March-through-October irrigation season, still has water in storage at El Vado and Heron lakes.

“That was stored last year and not released for irrigation purposes, and it’s available to us this spring if we need it in the Middle Rio Grande Valley,” said conservancy district hydrologist David Gensler. “That’s water we own, and we will release it to augment whatever is coming naturally down the river, so we should have a pretty good start, anyway.”

Gensler said he’s “not losing any sleep” over the drought conditions just yet.

“We’ve been here before, and there’s a lot of winter yet to come,” he said. In New Mexico, “a lot of moisture in snowpack materializes in March, April and sometimes May.”

Still, if things don’t change, he conceded, “this could turn out to be one of the drier years on record.”

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