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April’s above-average rain helps ease drought in New Mexico

Drought_April 5_2016ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — More than average precipitation across New Mexico in April brought relief to a state parched by the dry-as-dirt first three months of the year and helped beat back drought conditions to a small degree.

A state drought map released Thursday by the New Mexico Drought Monitoring Workgroup shows that 37 percent of the state is in moderate drought. In early April, 43 percent of the state was in moderate drought.

The big difference is March, which tied March 1956 as the driest March in New Mexico since 1895, and April, when statewide precipitation was 129 percent of normal.

“April was better than we thought it would be,” Chuck Jones, a meteorologist with the Albuquerque office of the National Weather Service, said during this week’s Drought Monitoring Workgroup session.

The group is made up of representatives of the weather service and state and federal agencies.

“We were a quarter of an inch above normal (statewide) in April after a below-normal January and February, and a pathetically below-normal March,” Jones said.

New Mexico’s average statewide precipitation in March is 0.72 inch. But this March, only 0.06 inch of precipitation were recorded statewide. By comparison, average statewide precipitation in April is 0.75 inch, but last month, New Mexico sopped up an average of 0.97 inch.

Average statewide precipitation in May is 1.05 inches, and this month, totals have been running near or slightly higher than average. But that doesn’t mean every section of the state is getting its share.

Far southwestern New Mexico, where moderate drought conditions are focused, has been dry. May rain and mountain snow have favored northern and central New Mexico, although a round of precipitation May 17-19, while all but missing the Albuquerque area, did move farther south.

Some of that southerly precipitation proved to be somewhat more aggressive than desired. During the work group session, Ryan Ward of the New Mexico Department of Agriculture said hail roughed up crops – chile, apples, cotton, pecans, onions – in the south.

“Doña Ana County got hit pretty hard,” Ward said.

Susan Rich of the state Department of Forestry said this year has been a more active year for wildfires than last year.

Last year, one of the wettest in New Mexico history, boosted the growth of fine fuels, primarily grasses, that feed fires. Add to that dry, windy conditions that have characterized much of this year’s weather, and you’ve got a recipe for trouble.

There have been no severe wildfires in the state this year, but Rich said that since January, there have been 205 wildfires affecting 52,137 acres of state and private lands. During the same period last year, Rich said, there were 137 fires affecting 8,492 acres of state and private lands.

Where is the weather headed from here? Jones said that’s difficult to say because forecasts for precipitation over the next three months are inconclusive.

“The outlook is for pretty much equal chances of above-normal, normal or below-normal precipitation,” he said.

He did say El Niño, the moisture-laden weather pattern caused by abnormally warm sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, has pretty much worn itself out. It was El Niño that made 2015 New Mexico’s fifth-wettest year in 120 years.

“El Niño looked great at the end of 2015, but not so much at the start of 2016,” Jones said.

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