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Summer rain still not enough

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

Three weeks of summer rains have made a world of difference in New Mexico, but they’re far from enough to break three years of drought.

The moisture has reduced fire danger, allowing forests to reopen, and provided a needed boost for farmers whose irrigation supplies were running out. But the state’s reservoirs remain near empty and it will take a lot more rain to bring us out of drought, the state’s top water official, Engineer Scott Verhines, said Monday.

“Overall, the state’s still in drought status,” Verhines said in an interview. “The reservoirs are incredibly low.”

According to the federal Drought Monitor, 38 percent of New Mexico remains in “exceptional” drought, the most extreme category, including a band reaching from the state’s northeast corner through Bernalillo County. New Mexico is still suffering the worst drought conditions in the nation.

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, often forming initially over New Mexico’s mountains before they drift over the populated valleys.

The moisture needed for those storms usually ebbs and flows during July and August. This year, it has been hanging around consistently since July 1, according to Kerry Jones, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Albuquerque office.

As a result, storms have been firing up every afternoon, Jones said Monday during the agency’s weekly briefing for emergency managers and reporters. The result has been some impressive rainfall in some areas of the state. At Mesa del Sol, on the east mesa south of the Albuquerque airport, a weather observer recorded 2.73 inches since July 1. By comparison, the nearby airport rain gauge averages half that for the entire month of July.

Magdalena, a drought-plagued village in the mountains west of Socorro, had received 5.64 inches through the first three weeks of July, according to the Weather Service, more than double its July average.

Ruidoso, another community facing water problems, has received 3.83 inches of rain, according to the National Weather Service. The long-term weather station in Ruidoso gets 4 inches of rain in an average July.

Among the summer rain “have nots” so far this year are Socorro, which has received just an inch of rain, and Farmington, which has received just half an inch, according to the Weather Service.

The rains are forecast to continue for at least another week, but beyond that the outlook is less clear. The latest longer term forecast from the federal Climate Prediction Center sets even odds at either wet or dry weather through August.

But while the weather in Magdalena may be wet, the community’s problems illustrate why a few weeks of summer rain are insufficient to end the drought. The village’s water table has been dropping and no short-term rainy spell can fix that problem, said Dennis McQuillan, source water protection manager for the New Mexico Environment Department.

Like many communities, Magdalena depends on groundwater that recharges only slowly, based on mountain snowfall in the winter. For community water supplies, summer rains are little help beyond reducing the demand for garden water.

“We’re going to need a number of wet winters to turn things around,” McQuillan said.

At this point, seasonal forecasters say they don’t know enough to tell us whether the odds favor a wet or dry New Mexico for the winter of 2013-14.

With irrigation season over for Rio Grande Valley farmers in southern New Mexico, water levels in Elephant Butte Reservoir have been rising slightly, but the reservoir remains nearly empty, at just 3 percent of capacity.

In the Albuquerque metro area, the rains have cut water consumption as residents reduce their outdoor watering. Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority customers used 2.4 billion gallons of water during the first three weeks of July, down 13 percent from the same period last year, according to Katherine Yuhas, the utility’s water conservation officer.

The drought-rain sequence also has led to a new set of problems. Drought conditions contributed to major wildfires across the state. Now thunderstorms are falling on burned mountain landscapes, sending loads of ash into the state’s rivers. This year, that problem has hit the Pecos River watershed downstream from the Tres Lagunas fire.

The Environment Department has identified 16 small community water systems downstream of the Tres Lagunas burn that are at risk, McQuillan said.