ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — “I think,” Phil King said in May, “it’s forgotten how to rain down here.”
And then it remembered.
The year 2013 started as one of New Mexico’s driest on record, then became, for a time, one of the wettest. The extremes balance out to make a year that, seen as a whole, will go down as roughly average by most measures – slightly wetter and warmer than average, but not by much in either case. But between drought and floods, 2013 felt like anything but an “average” year.
A few miles west of New Mexico State University hydrologist King’s office, the mid-summer Rio Grande had been dry since the previous September, earning the nickname “Rio Sand” – the longest duration the riverbed had been dry since record-keeping began in 1916. With less than half an inch of rain in Las Cruces since the previous October, southern New Mexico was the driest it had been in 99 years.
By early July, Elephant Butte Reservoir, to the north of Las Cruces, dropped to the lowest level it had been since the late 1970s.
Across New Mexico, the story was the same, with 98 percent of the state in “severe” drought.
“I’m worried that the dirt’s gonna catch fire,” said Adrian Oglesby, a member of the board of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, the agency that delivers water to farmers from Cochiti to Socorro County. Short on water, Oglesby’s agency had its lowest water deliveries since New Mexico’s drought of the 1950s. In Albuquerque, where weather record-keeping goes back to the 1890s, the first six months of 2013 were the third driest in history, according to Kerry Jones at the National Weather Service’s Albuquerque office.
And then the rains came. It began with a hefty burst of summer monsoon rains across much of the state in July, followed by a relatively quiet August. And then in September, the heavens opened.
A river of moisture funneling up from Mexico delivered the wettest six-day stretch ever recorded in Albuquerque. This was no isolated affair. Like a loose firehose, the stream of moisture whipped back and forth across the state for a week, drenching first the eastern plains, then the central and western parts of the state. Across New Mexico, communities set records for the wettest four, five or six days in their history. In Los Alamos, according to the Weather Service, more than 7 inches of rain fell during the week beginning Sept. 10.
After months on drought duty, Jones found himself perched at dawn Sept. 16 on an aging steel girder bridge over the Rio Puerco south of Belen, monitoring a swirling muddy river flowing through what is usually a dry arroyo, the highest flows on the Puerco since the 1940s. The flow was so high that there is a gap in the U.S. Geological Survey’s record for the day; the storm washed away the agency’s stream gauge.
In Albuquerque, police at one point during the September storm cleared the riverside bosque because of high flows on the Rio Grande. On the Pecos River, reservoirs that had been emptied by three years of persistent drought filled in a week, and residents throughout the state are still recovering from flood damage.
So at year’s end, how did it all shake out?
In Albuquerque, seven of the twelve months of 2013 were warmer than average, with a preliminary year-end average temperature that is 1.1 degree Fahrenheit above the last century’s yearly average. A total of 9.32 inches of rain fell in 2013 at the National Weather Service’s airport rain gauge, compared to an average of 8.42 inches over the last century. Clayton, with 13.4 inches, was slightly below its long-term average of 15.1 inches, while Gallup’s 10.63 inches almost exactly matched its long-term average of 11 inches.
Statewide, the burst of rain reduced drought conditions by year’s end to their lowest since spring 2011, according to the weekly federal Drought Monitor. But the drought is not gone.
On the Rio Grande, the September burst of rain and a lingering runoff that followed pushed Elephant Butte Reservoir to 75 percent above December 2011 levels. But the reservoir is still at just 13 percent of its capacity.
To the north, El Vado Reservoir on the Rio Chama remains nearly empty. “It’s a little puddle,” Raymond Abeyta of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation told state and federal officials at a drought-monitoring meeting earlier this month.
Abeyta’s comments were accompanied with bad news. Federal forecasters reported Dec. 20 that odds favor a return to the dry pattern, with odds favoring continued drought through spring.