Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
The state of drought in New Mexico could be described as a tale of two cities.
A strip of counties along the state’s eastern border with Texas is drought-free, while the Four Corners area and northwestern New Mexico continue to be what one expert described as an “epicenter of drought,” according to an updated map released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
About 15.5 percent of the state – San Juan County and parts of Colfax, McKinley, Mora, Rio Arriba, Santa Fe, Sandoval, San Miguel and Taos counties – is in exceptional drought, the most serious category.
Royce Fontenot, senior hydrologist with the Albuquerque office of the National Weather Service, said during a New Mexico Drought Monitor Working Group session Tuesday that the area of exceptional drought is centered over the Four Corners and not budging.
“The epicenter of drought in the United States is the Four Corners region,” Fontenot said. “It’s very persistent. It’s pretty much where all the (NWS forecasters’) eyes are.”
Meanwhile, 5.3 percent of the state – parts of the eastern New Mexico counties of Union, Harding, Quay, Curry, Roosevelt and Lea – is drought-free.
By contrast, 88.6 percent of the state was drought-free at this time last year.
“We had a pretty good monsoon season in a lot of places … but it was still hit or miss,” Fontenot said. “It was good on the eastern border but pretty abysmal for the Four Corners region and a mixed bag along the central Rio Grande Valley. We saw some areas that got a lot of precipitation, and just a few miles away – not so great. It’s been one of those ‘raining on your porch, not your back’ sort of situations.”
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.
The southwestern and central parts of Bernalillo County are in moderate drought, and the southeastern and northern parts of the county are in severe drought.
The Albuquerque International Sunport has received 1.64 inches of precipitation this month, almost twice as much as the average, 0.86 inch.
Most of that came on Tuesday and Wednesday, when a slow-moving Pacific trough brought long-duration rainfall to most of the state.
The rainfall was beneficial, said meteorologist Todd Shoemake of the weather service in Albuquerque, but not a drought-breaker.
“This is one of the more beneficial precipitation events for us in a drought-stricken area,” Shoemake said. “Most of New Mexico saw this rainfall over a 36- to 48-hour period, so it’s a slow precipitation. It wasn’t too fast or too furious, for the most part. That longer duration allows it to absorb into the soil, as opposed to thunderstorms that we see during the monsoon season, where it falls too fast and goes straight into the streams and rivers and doesn’t benefit the soil.”
The state would need at least two similar storms to pull out of this drought, Shoemake said.
The city is still in a rainfall deficit for the year, at 7.88 inches. Average precipitation for the year to date is 8.22 inches.
Experts said they hope drought conditions in the state will improve this winter with the probable arrival of El Niño, an ocean-atmosphere climate interaction that is linked to periodic warming in sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific.
Meteorologists from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center said during a briefing this week that they project a 70 to 75 percent chance that El Niño will develop during the next few months.
The precipitation outlook for December through February favors wetter-than-average conditions for New Mexico. Drought improvement is likely for the state, as well as for Arizona and southern parts of Utah and Colorado.
Also during the conference, Raymond Abeyta of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages water resources in the western part of the country, reported that the Rio Grande is flowing continuously again after recent rains.
The Navajo, Conchas, Ute, Santa Rosa, Heron, El Vado, Abiquiú and Caballo reservoirs showed lower water levels this month, compared with September.