Drought has eased across San Juan County, but long-term prospects aren't good

Farmington has seen more than 2 inches of rain over last eight weeks

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • While the vast majority of the county remains in some form of drought, the severity of those conditions has been in retreat since late June.
  • The northwest corner of the county remains the hardest-hit area and is still classified as being in extreme drought.
  • Most of the rest of the county has been upgraded to severe drought or even moderate drought.

FARMINGTON — A productive monsoon season in the Four Corners area has loosened the drought's grip on San Juan County significantly since late June, but that reprieve could be short lived, according to the National Weather Service.

Since monsoon rain began falling in the county during the third week of June, Farmington has been able to erase much of its moisture deficit, according to Andrew Church, a meteorologist with the weather service office in Albuquerque. He said the year-to-date moisture total at the Four Corners Regional Airport as of Aug. 15 was 3.53 inches, which still trails the normal year-to-date total of 4.3 inches.

But he said that deficit was much lower than it had been earlier in the year. As of June 23, only 1.4 inches of precipitation had fallen at the airport, well below the normal total of 3.13 inches that site normally sees through the end of June. That means over the last eight weeks, Farmington has seen more than 2 inches of rain — a veritable bounty for an area where the drought stretches back nearly three years.

"As a whole, the county has improved dramatically over the last three months, thanks to the monsoon," Church said, referring to the U.S. Drought Monitor map that chronicles moisture conditions across the country and in New Mexico.

The monsoon storms that have rolled through San Juan County with regularity since the beginning of summer have gone a long way toward alleviating the area's drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Church said most of that improvement has come in the southeast portion of the county and in the Chuska Mountains to the west.

While the vast majority of the county remains in some form of drought, the severity of those conditions has been in retreat since late June. The northwest corner of the county remains the hardest-hit area and is still classified as being in extreme drought, the second-worst category. But most of the rest of the county has been upgraded to severe drought or even moderate drought. And a tiny portion of the county's southwest corner is technically drought-free, finding itself classified as abnormally dry.

Those conditions are markedly different from where they were when summer began and especially compared with a year ago. In August 2021, nearly 41% of the county was categorized as being in exceptional drought, the worst category. Now that percentage is 0. And while more than 23% of San Juan County is still in extreme drought, that figure compares very favorably with the 92% of the county that was in that state a year ago.

Church said more relief could be on the way this week.

"We've got a backdoor cold front coming in from the northeast," he said. "That normally doesn't cool down temperatures much, but they will send us some showers and thunderstorms. A lot of times, you guys (in the Four Corners) miss out on that, but your chances look good. You've got likely chances of measurable precipitation through much of this week."

While the weather service typically doesn't compile monsoon rainfall totals until the season is over in October, Church said it is clear that this summer has marked a welcome change from the poor monsoon seasons of the recent past for the Four Corners.

"This is the most beneficial season you guys have seen for at least the last five years," he said. "In fact, much of western New Mexico has done better, if memory serves, than it has for at least the last five years, if not longer."

Church said he expects the relatively wet trend in the Four Corners to continue for at least another couple of weeks.

"The remainder of the month looks wet, as well," he said. "Things are looking good at getting some more rainfall and helping break the drought."

But that doesn't mean the drought is over, he said. Church said the formation of a rare triple-dip La Nina in the Pacific Ocean means a return to very dry conditions is likely in the cards for the American Southwest come early next year.

La Nina conditions in the Pacific typically portend close-to-normal precipitation in the late fall and winter, he said, but dry conditions in the early spring. That equates to a dearth of March and April storms that feed the region's snowpack and keep rivers and streams running at a healthy level through the summer.

Still, Church said triple-dip La Nina events happen so rarely that there has been very little data accumulated to measure their impact. That makes their effects very hard to forecast, he said.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription: http://bit.ly/2I6TU0e.