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Wettest year in a decade for NM and Albuquerque

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

This year was the wettest for Albuquerque and New Mexico in a decade – plenty wet enough to chase short-term drought out of the state for the first time in five years and sprinkle some hope in thirsty hearts as we float into 2016.

“We are certainly starting off the (new) year in the best condition in quite a while,” said Chuck Jones, a meteorologist with the Albuquerque office of the National Weather Service. “And we are pretty confident that precipitation will continue to average above normal through the winter into the spring.”

The banks of the Rio Grande are lined with snow as the river courses through Bernalillo on Wednesday. Above average precipitation in many parts of the state over the past year have helped erased short-term drought from New Mexico. (Susan Montoya Bryan/The Associated Press)

The banks of the Rio Grande are lined with snow as the river courses through Bernalillo on Wednesday. Above average precipitation in many parts of the state over the past year have helped erased short-term drought from New Mexico. (Susan Montoya Bryan/The Associated Press)

Albuquerque is ending 2015 with 11.49 inches of precipitation, the city’s wettest year since 2006. This year’s total is more than 2 inches above the city’s average annual precipitation of 9.45, but is only the 16th-wettest year on record for Albuquerque. The city’s record annual rainfall is 15.88 inches, in the deluge year of 1941.

The statewide annual precipitation is based on an average of monitoring stations throughout the state, and those figures will not be ready for weeks. Even so, the statewide total through November is 18.23 inches, making the first 11 months of this year the fifth-wettest such period on record and putting the total precipitation thus far well above the state’s annual normal total of 13.25 inches.

With all the snow the state received last weekend, 2015’s New Mexico total precipitation promises to climb up the ranks in the record books, but it will very likely fall short of the all-time high 26.25 inches the state got in 1941.

There was enough moisture in 2015 to eliminate all short-term drought in New Mexico by early this month, the first time that has been the case since late in November 2010.

A year ago, more than 65 percent of the state was in some form of drought, nearly 30 percent in severe drought. As of now, 26 percent of the state is listed as abnormally dry, but there is no drought, the weather service said.

All that moisture also prevented major forest fires in the state this year and gave the state’s farmers a leg up on the irrigation season.

This year actually got off to a pretty wet start. There were four significant snowfalls in the state in January, making it the 13th-wettest January in New Mexico history.

rainfall31By the middle of March, forecasters were predicting a wetter-than-normal spring created by especially high sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. That produced an El Niño that carried through the summer and fall and into the winter.

“With the development of that El Niño, it certainly became evident it was going to be a wetter year,” Jones said.

Not that it always seemed as if it were going to be that way. A very dry April finally yielded to a wet May through July.

Then in August, it looked as if someone had flipped the rain switch off. Albuquerque went from 3.28 inches of rain in July, the city’s seventh-wettest July on record, to 0.32 inch of rain in August, Albuquerque’s 10th-driest August ever.

droughtmap31That dry August put a dent in Albuquerque’s monsoon season, June 15 to Sept. 30. Jones said Albuquerque got just 5.02 inches of rain during that period, about average instead of the record hinted at by July’s rain. But the rain returned in late September, and the year finished up with plenty of snow. Jones said El Niño conditions should persist for some months into 2016.

“The southern areas of the state may end up with higher precipitation numbers than the north,” Jones said. “In typical years, the northern areas get more. But because of the warm water temperatures that give us El Niños, storm tracks tend to be farther south. Warm temperatures also hold more moisture, so we have the potential for more storms with more moisture.”

Despite the current low temperatures, Jones said, the year will end up being wetter and warmer than average. For example, Jones said, 2015 ranks as the seventh-warmest in Albuquerque’s history. The city’s average temperature for the year is 58.8 degrees, 1.6 degrees warmer than normal.

He said he cannot say with confidence what summer 2016 holds for the state.

“Models and climate prediction guys say El Niño is going to go neutral during the summer,” Jones said. “It’s hard to say what short-term drought will be like next summer. But we are getting off to a good start for 2016.”

Reservoir update

David Gensler, hydrologist with the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, which delivers water to about 70,000 acres of cropland, said he expects to go into the start of irrigation season in March with 25,000 to 30,000 acre-feet of water in reservoirs.

“I’m feeling OK about that,” Gensler said. “We have some water in storage. Not as much as I had hoped, but it is something. More than I had last March, which was zero.”

Even this year’s better-than-average precipitation did not make up much for recent dry years that put a strain on the state’s reservoirs.

Heron, El Vado and Abiquiu, the reservoirs north of Albuquerque, are at 17, 20 and 71 percent of capacity, respectively. Elephant Butte and Caballo, the reservoirs south of Albuquerque, are at 16 and 12 percent capacity.

Late snow in the spring and abundant rain in May turned things around for the 2015 irrigation season. But a dry August and September reminded Gensler about how fragile New Mexico’s water supply is.

“As soon as the rain stops, the (Rio Grande) just shuts off,” he said.

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