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Drought lingers across New Mexico

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Most of New Mexico remains in the grip of severe to exceptional drought conditions despite recent monsoon moisture.

Royce Fontenot, senior hydrologist with the Albuquerque office of the National Weather Service, said during a New Mexico Drought Monitor Working Group session this week that in the past 30 days, significant precipitation has fallen in the area, particularly over the central mountain chain, the lower Rio Grande Valley and parts of the upper Rio Grande Valley.

But those recent rains, Fontenot said, have not been enough to erase persistent dryness the state experienced over the past three to six months.

“The ecosystem needs a certain amount of water over a certain amount of time,” Fontenot said. “We had a very long period with little to no precipitation. Certainly, these recent storms have been very fruitful, but it’s not going to get us out of drought … particularly over the northern mountains.”

The Drought Monitor Work Group, made up of members of the National Weather Service and state and federal agencies, determines the extent and severity of drought in the state.

An updated drought map released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Thursday shows that nearly all of New Mexico is in some stage of drought and 46 percent is in extreme or exceptional drought.

Areas under exceptional drought include the northern part of the state and the Four Corners, where precipitation during the past six months was 50 to 75 percent of normal across much of the region.

Extreme drought expanded to reach east-central New Mexico.

During the Working Group conference, Marshal Wilson of the New Mexico Department of Agriculture said recent rains have been helpful, but “it’s taken a lot of time to get us to this point, and it’s going to take a lot of sustained rain to get us out of it.”

“That’s what we’re hearing from a lot of personal communication across the state is that we get these good shots of moisture, but it doesn’t come in a sustained manner, and with the heat, things begin to burn off and dry out,” Wilson said.

Last year at this time, no part of the state was considered to be in severe, extreme or exceptional drought and only 5 percent was considered abnormally dry.

The rain has come in a weather pattern meteorologists call the North American monsoon.

Moist air, generally flowing north from Mexico, fuels afternoon and evening thunderstorms. The storms form initially over the state’s mountains, which serve as a focusing mechanism for development, before they move over valleys.

There are usually distinct periods of heavy rain during the monsoon and periods with little or no rain.

The Albuquerque International Sunport received 2.21 inches of precipitation in July, more than the month’s normal total of 1.5 inches.

However, the city is still in a rainfall deficit for the year, at 4.45 inches. Average precipitation for the first seven months of the year is 4.7 inches.

The rain has helped place Bernalillo County and the middle Rio Grande Valley into the severe drought category, an improvement from the extreme drought category it was in last week.

Valencia, Torrance and Socorro counties also improved by one category compared with last week.

Recent rains have also helped reopen the area’s national parks, forests and open spaces that were closed to the public in June and part of July due to concerns about wildfire danger.

Southern New Mexico had the greatest improvements, as drought was reduced by one category in many areas compared with last week. The Las Cruces area has improved, as well as the Silver City area.

Also during the Working Group conference, Raymond Abeyta of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages water resources in the western part of the country, said recent rains helped some with reservoir storage in the Rio Grande Valley.

But the lack of snowpack last winter and lack of rainfall this spring and summer is taking its toll, he said, especially at El Vado Reservoir, in Rio Arriba County.

“It helped us reduce our releases for a while, but they’re going to go back up a little bit again,” Abeyta said. “It was short-lived. We’ll have to see whether the rains really develop and really help us out.”

El Vado contained about 9,682 acre-feet in July, according to Abeyta, who also said he believed that level was among the lowest he had seen since the early 2000s. Last year at this time, the lake contained about 140,000 acre-feet of water.

Officials at El Vado Lake State Park closed access to boat ramps early last month and prohibited the use of motorized boats due to dropping water levels and safety concerns.

The lake is open for non-motorized vessels, such as canoes, paddleboards and kayaks.

Navajo, Ute, Santa Rosa, Sumner, Heron, Abiquiú, Elephant Butte and Caballo reservoirs had lower water levels in July than in June.

A recent release of water between Santa Rosa and Brantley reservoirs took place for irrigation needs in the Carlsbad area, Abeyta said.