"Fire danger is high, water reservoirs are running low and in some cases, towns like Mancos, Colo., have had water rationing to try to reduce basic water consumption in residents' homes and businesses," Jay Balfour, battalion chief for the Farmington Fire Department, said Thursday. "If we go through the rest of this year and we continue with our current deficit, 2013 could be an historic fire season."
A winter storm is expected to arrive today, but the Four Corners area has like the entire state endured back-to-back dry winters exacerbated by outbreaks of wind gusts and underfed by monsoon-less summers. According to state forestry data, all of New Mexico is under drought conditions, from abnormally dry to exceptional. This year has been especially dry in San Juan County.
"Running at 30 to 40 percent below normal concerns us," Balfour said. "We would be happy for even a half of an inch of rain to soften the blow."
The city's fire department, which operates with a staff of 23 to 28 fire personnel, can react quickly to outbreaks but the wind makes any blaze more volatile and its impact more dangerous.
"We were just battling a fire last month that kept us at it for three days," Belfour said. "Nearly 400 acres burned, fueled in large part by 63-mile-per-hour wind gusts and sustained winds of over 30 miles per hour. Wind is also our nemesis.
Strong winds. Low rain levels. Persistent drought conditions are not helped by conditions in the Pacific Ocean, said Paul Montoya, water rights specialist for the city of Farmington.
"The lack of an El Nino means warmer ocean waters and drier conditions for us," said Montoya. "In this case, the Pacific steers storms above us, in a pattern from California to Wyoming to Nebraska."
In other words, the ocean-propelled storms this winter could, in large part, occur to the north of the area, spelling continued deficits in water levels in local rivers and dams.
"This year has been really low," Montoya said. "We have tended to average nearly eight inches per year, but as of this week, Farmington's total is just over 2.5 inches for the year."
If you've walked by the Animas River lately, you have surely noted the yawning expanse of gravel bed that the river water normally obscures.
Montoya has seen it, too. "Our local geological survey gauge stations, in Farmington and Cedar Hill, which record water levels in the Animas, are running near 170 cubic feet per second," he said. "For this time of year, we should be running 450 CFS, roughly half."
Beyond drought declarations from Santa Fe and water rationing measures, San Juan County does have a back-up plan, should local water supplies become insufficient.
"Right now Farmington Lake is at 90 percent capacity," Montoya said. "But if we needed to, through the San Juan Water Commission, we could source water from recently completed Lake Nighthorse, near Durango. But I am hoping for a lot of snow in the La Platas and San Juans this winter."