Augusta Liddic/The Daily Times The Animas River runs low through Farmington on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012.
Augusta Liddic/The Daily Times The Animas River runs low through Farmington on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. (Augusta Liddic)
FARMINGTON — The Four Corners is likely to see less precipitation and warmer temperatures as climate change accelerates, a National Weather Service climate forecaster said.

The trend is clear in climate models, said Joe Ramey, a climate researcher at the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, Colo.

"All of the climate models tend to produce a warmer Arizona, New Mexico (and) up into the Four Corners," he said. "It's a very strong climate signal for that region to become warmer and drier."

That trend is likely to take many years to develop but it could affect everything from ski resorts to alfalfa farmers. In the near term, a second straight dry winter could be in store for the Farmington area, Ramey said.

El Ni-o conditions failed to materialize as expected in the Pacific Ocean this year. Warmer waters in the south Pacific tend to create a storm track for the Four Corners.

"We have not reached El Ni-o and it's looking more and more unlikely that we'll reach El Ni-o," he said.

This winter is shaping up as a neutral or "no Ni-o" year, he said. Neutral winter are difficult to predict, but three of the last four similar years were drier than normal.

"Overall a dry year is probably the most likely outcome," he said.

Another dry winter would worsen the area's drought. Farmington received only 2.65 inches of precipitation during the first nine months of 2012, a total that was 3.55 inches short of average.

Most of San Juan County is classified as in "severe drought," while a sliver of the county near the Arizona border is in an even worse "extreme drought," according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a multiagency government effort.

There appears to be no help coming soon from Mother Nature. Sunny, rain-free weather is forecast by the National Weather Service into next week.

The drought is widespread. New Mexico received only 63 percent of the average precipitation during the first nine months of the year. It was the ninth-driest first nine months of any year on record.

Farmers and ranchers are feeling the effects. Hay continues to grow costlier, and many cattle ranchers are culling their herds, disrupting generations of careful breeding.

"We're going to be going into a difficult spring," said Dalene Hodnett, spokeswoman for the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau.

New Mexico won't be able to depend on neighboring states like Colorado, which have also experienced drought conditions, to provide inexpensive hay.

"Hay this winter is going to be expensive because it's in short supply," Hodnett said.

San Juan County's biggest farm enterprise, the Navajo Agricultural Products Industry, could be in a good position relative to other hay producers because of its historic water rights. The Navajo-owned farm is a major alfalfa producer.

"They have access to water that some other farmers don't have access to," said Hodnett.

NAPI crop production hasn't yet been hurt by the drought, said Hal Thompson, NAPI marketing director. However, the farm enterprise is keeping a close watch on water output from Navajo Dam.

"As any other farming operation would do, if we were faced with a serious water shortage we would have to re-evaluate our crop mix and do the best we could," he said.

NAPI uses technology to monitor how much water it's using, and only give crops as much water as necessary, he said.

Not all the effects of drought are negative for farmers. NAPI can benefit from dry seasons when prices for alfalfa hay rise.

A dry winter could hurt Southwest Colorado's ski areas after a lackluster 2011-12 season. Skier visits for all Colorado resorts fell last winter by 11 percent to fewer than 6.2 million, the lowest in a decade, according to the industry group Colorado Ski Country USA.

Durango Mountain Resort outperformed most Colorado ski areas. Skier visits were down by less than 1 percent, spokeswoman Kim Oyler said.

The ski area tentatively plans to open Nov. 23, the day after Thanksgiving. Workers have cleared brush to help skiers during early season conditions.

Oyler said the resort is hoping for good storms in December.

"We're going to be looking forward to a good snow year and a good ski year," she said.