When it rains, it pours.
After several years of harsh drought, New Mexico soaked up a statewide average of 19.08 inches of precipitation in 2015, making it the state’s fifth-wettest year in 120 years.
According to the Western Regional Climate Center, the only wetter years in New Mexico since 1895 were 1941 (26.59 inches), 1905 (20.69), 1986 (20.58) and 1919 (19.39). The state’s average annual precipitation total is 13.25 inches.
Statewide annual precipitation is based on an average of monitoring stations throughout the state, so it took some days into the new year to compile that information.
Unusually high sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean produced El Niño conditions that resulted in good rain May through July and heavy snow in December, erasing all short-term drought conditions from New Mexico by early last month, the first time that has happened since November 2010. But in New Mexico, arid conditions are never far away.
“It does not take long to get back into drought conditions,” said Kerry Jones, a meteorologist with the Albuquerque office of the National Weather Service. “Certainly, a wet calendar year does not guarantee a subsequent wet year. But we are tilted toward a wetter than average (2016) into our early spring. It’s too early to talk about summer.”
Jones said one thing in New Mexico’s favor is that it went into this winter with a lot more moisture in the soil than there was going into the cold months a year ago.
“That means that instead of the soil soaking up moisture like a sponge, the snowmelt (in spring) will end up in creeks, rivers and ultimately the reservoirs,” Jones said.
Even with this year’s abundant moisture, the state’s reservoirs remain well below capacity. Heron, El Vado and Abiquiu reservoirs, north of Albuquerque, are at 17, 20, and 71 percent of capacity, respectively. Elephant Butte and Caballo reservoirs, south of Albuquerque, are at 16 and 12 percent capacity.
Snowpacks in New Mexico mountains, however, are looking much better now than they did a year ago.
“We have good (snowpack) values statewide,” Jones said. “Numbers are especially rosy down south.”
Down south, the mountains of the Rio Hondo Basin are boasting snowpack numbers of 204 percent of average. A year ago, the Rio Hondo Basin was at 62 percent.
Also down south, the Mimbres River Basin has gone from 77 percent of normal last year to 179 percent now, the Gila River Basin from 58 percent to 160 percent and the San Francisco River Basin from 48 percent to 127 percent.
Conditions are similarly impressive farther north. The Jemez River Basin was at 53 percent of normal this time last year and is 153 percent now. The Jemez River Basin snowpack went from 54 percent a year ago to 148 percent now.
Snowpacks, however, are fragile and can be deleted pretty quickly by wind and warm weather.
“What we are hoping for is keeping our temperatures relatively cold to preserve the snowpack,” Jones said. “If you start to get dry, windy weather once you get past early April, you can start losing snowpack. Right now and on into March, we are still in the accumulation season. If we don’t see additional snow, those values are going to start to drop.”
That’s all in the future. What’s in the immediate past is the fifth-wettest year in 120 years.