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Prepare drought plans, NM warned

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

State officials are warning New Mexico communities to prepare drought plans, with federal forecasters Thursday saying odds favor continued warm and dry weather at least through April.

At a time of year that is critical for building New Mexico’s water supply, seasonal snowstorms have largely bypassed New Mexico since the third week of December, and the new forecast suggests more of the same. Albuquerque is on track for one of its longest winter season rainless or snowless streaks on record, according to the National Weather Service.

A00_jd_17jan_Drought-mapSnowpack around the state ranged from three-quarters of average in the Sangre de Cristos to less than half in the headwaters of the Gila River in southwestern New Mexico. Federal officials met with local water agencies this week to discuss possible first-ever shortfalls of water for the San Juan-Chama Project, which imports San Juan River water for use in the Rio Grande Basin. And on the Rio Grande itself, the January forecast calls for 59 percent of normal flow into Elephant Butte Reservoir in southern New Mexico.

“It’s bad,” said John Longworth, head of the Water Use and Conservation Bureau at the Office of State Engineer.

Longworth and some of his colleagues have met with small-community water managers from around the state, urging them to prepare “drought-ready community” plans that identify where their water sources might be at risk in a drought, and how they would respond.

Communities that depend on melting mountains snows for their water supplies should especially be on alert, Longworth told the Journal. Among those that depend on mountain snows for their water supplies are Las Vegas and Santa Fe.

The immediate problem is a high-pressure ridge in the atmosphere running down the west coast of North America that is blocking the winter storm track, keeping much of the western half of the continent dry. A stretch of the country from northern California to central Texas has received essentially no rain or snow this year.

Albuquerque has gone 27 consecutive days without rain or snow. If the dry spell continues through Thursday, as the current forecast suggests, it would be one of six longest winter dry stretches in more than a century of weather record keeping for the city, according to the National Weather Service.

“That high pressure has to break before anything changes,” Longworth said.

The ridge is anchored by a massive pool of warmer-than-average water off Alaska, and there is no sign it will break down in the next few weeks and finally allow the storms to reach us, said Kerry Jones, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Albuquerque.

The ridge, along with the warm, dry New Mexico weather that results, is a shorter-term problem forecasters say could be gone within a few weeks, allowing some storms back in. But the longer-range outlook, issued Thursday by the federal Climate Prediction Center on Thursday, favors more warm and dry weather through the spring.

As a result of lingering drought from last year, 27 of New Mexico’s 33 counties received formal drought disaster declarations Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a legal step that makes farmers eligible for emergency loans. Eighty percent of the state is still in some level of drought, according to the federal Drought Monitor. Elephant Butte Reservoir, the state’s largest, is at 15 percent of capacity.

One bright spot, according to Longworth, is reservoir storage on the state’s east side. Heavy September rains helped fill the irrigation supply lakes on the Pecos and Canadian Rivers. That was especially good news on the Pecos, where water shortfalls last year led to the threat of a major legal fight over water rights on the river.