Thursday, June 13, 2013

New Mexico in 2013 - Land of Dessication

New Mexico's official "nickname" is the Land of Enchantment. It really is a beautiful state, rich in natural beauty and cultural heritage. One of my lasting memories of a vacation out west years ago was while driving through New Mexico during the late afternoon and entering a flat desert plain surrounding by towering mesas. The late afternoon sun combined with the colors of the landscape was an amazing sight.

Unfortunately, New Mexico has become ground zero of the drought that has been in progress over the western U.S. the past two years. A little over 82 percent of the state is in Extreme to Exceptional Drought according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor. That's the highest percentage of any state currently affected. Conditions have significantly worsened over the last three months.  At the start of the calendar year about 32 percent of the state was in Extreme to Exceptional Drought, and by March it was up to 50 percent.     

CoCoRaHS observers have been documenting the drought impacts, and some of the descriptions sound like they could have come from the Dust Bowl.  Here are two excerpts.

Santa Fe County
We are noticing that wild animals, birds and mammals, are increasingly desperate for water and therefore losing some of their instinctive fear of humans and other predators. The combination of severe drought and smoke from two wildfires nearby is making some mammals panic at times and come toward us rather than flee us when we are outside.
Rangeland in Lincoln County in April,
normally green at this time. Image credit: Twitter

Luna County
Because we've had so little moisture fall from the sky and we've had daily winds from 20 to 65/70 mph at least 80% of the population is suffering from "allergies" we didn't know we ever had! No one around here has a "lawn" of grass...instead we all measure just how deep the sand is now...the folks with the least amount of sand are considered lucky because they have less dusting/sand clean up to do on the inside of their homes. We've been told by a local farmer that he is now having to pay $20.00 for a bale of hay so he is going to have to sell all of his live stock next week - he can't afford to feed them any longer. And, we've heard that the local rancher spent over $100,000.00 in the last nine months trying to keep his cattle heavy enough to get them to market. We know that we haven't seen any of his cattle in our immediate area in the last 4 or 5 months...which means his heard head count is way down. Would you like us to start measuring the sand in our rain gauge rather than waiting for some moisture to land in it?

You can see the worsening of the drought in the water balance summary for a CoCoRaHS station in Bernalillo County in the north central part of the state. The station is NM-BR-56, Tijeras 3.7 N, located a few miles east of Albuquerque off of Interstate 40. This observer is not just measuring precipitation (or lack thereof), but also evapotranspiration (E-T).  It is the only location in New Mexico with this measurement at the time.  The average annual precipitation for this station is 18.54 inches. The annual total for NM-BR-56 in 2012 was 9.80 inches, just 53 percent of normal. So far in 2013 this station has only measured 1.85 inches of rain!  The observer started E-T- measurements on May 15, and since that time has had more than 8 inches of water loss, and no precipitation. E-T rates have been running from 0.25 to 0.45 inches per day, and without rainfall you can see how quickly the deficit accumulates.

Water balance summary for NM-BR-56. Water balance is precipitation minus E-T.

The precipitation shortfall since the beginning of the calendar year is remarkable. All of the areas in red have 20 percent or less of normal precipitation.

Percent of normal precipitation for January 1-June 13, 2013.
The gray area indicates the data is missing for far western New Mexico on this map.
Map from the National Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service

The large precipitation deficits have had obvious effects on the streamflow in New Mexico. The Pecos River basin is located on the east side of the state.

Hot, dry weather and tinder dry vegetation also translates into a high risk for wildfires. Several wildfires are already burning encompassing about 50,000 acres in total. A new fire was started by lightning in northern New Mexico this afternoon.

Satellite image of two of the wildfires in northern New Mexico.
Santa Fe is located just west of the Tres Lagunas fire.
Speaking of thunderstorms, there has been storms that have actually produced rain, but they have been few and far between. On June 5 thunderstorms covered Interstate 25 near La Bajada in Santa Fe County with 6 inches of hail. The southbound lanes of the Intersate were closed for over an hour until hghway crews could clear away the ice.  As you might expect, the hail piling up on the highway caused several accidents.

New Mexico residents are looking forward to the onset of the summer monsoon season to provide some rainfall, but it certainly won't be enough to make much of a dent in the current drought. The outlook for the summer in the Southwest is for a higher than normal probability of warm and dry conditions persisting.

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