Officials: Winter storms help, but drought not over yet
FARMINGTON — Cold. Wet. Dreary.
Those three words describe San Juan County weather over the past eight days — and what conditions are expected to be like for most of the rest of this week — as a winter storm warning issued this morning extends into late Tuesday.
That's hardly bad news for a region that desperately needs moisture. Mired in a record-setting drought for approximately a year and a half, San Juan County is enjoying a near-normal winter, even though this year's snowfall totals feel like a bounty compared to the parched conditions that prevailed a year ago.
"It's not hard to beat nothing," David Craft, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque, quipped today when contrasting this winter to the last one — not just in San Juan County but across New Mexico. "Any time you have a winter near normal, that's a good thing. We'll take it."
The winter storm warning issued by the NWS at 5:17 a.m. today for much of northern and western New Mexico remains in effect until 5 p.m. Tuesday. Accumulations of between 3 and 10 inches are expected, with 1 to 2 feet expected to fall in the northern mountains.
Schools cancel classes
School districts that on Monday night warned of two-hour delays canceled classes and other activities early Tuesday morning. Aztec, Farmington, Bloomfield and the Central Consolidated school districts announced school closures.
Bloomfield School District also canceled a girls basketball game against Miyamura, officials saying via Facebook that they hoped to reschedule the match for Wednesday. CCSD canceled a game that matched Shiprock against Gallup, rescheduling it for Wednesday.
CCSD still planned to hold its school board meeting Tuesday.
Conditions varied Monday
Conditions across San Juan County varied considerably Monday. While little snow had accumulated in Farmington and the roads were all but clear, the snowfall grew heavier farther north as the elevation increased. The ground was covered in Aztec, and just north of Cedar Hill, it was snowing heavily just before noon with road conditions deteriorating rapidly. As motorists approached the Colorado border on U.S. Highway 550, the road went from slushy to snow packed, and the visibility dropped to a quarter mile.
On the east side of the county, conditions were even more spotty. The wind at the Center Point Fire Station 2 at the intersection of N.M. highway 173 and 575 east of Aztec was gusting strongly and roads were treacherous. But farther east, near Navajo Lake, conditions were far milder, with patchy blue sky, no wind and temperatures hovering just above freezing.
The parking lot at the famed Texas Hole on the San Juan River was more than half full, and approximately a dozen anglers were taking advantage of the President's Day holiday to get in a little fishing.
But as afternoon approached, another heavy snow squall approached from the west, at times limiting visibility on U.S. Highway 64 between Bloomfield and Farmington to less than 100 yards.
The storm is the latest in a series of systems that have rolled through San Juan County since Feb. 11. According to daily weather data compiled by the New Mexico State University Agricultural Science Center in Farmington, today's storm marks the fifth time in the last eight days that the city has received measurable precipitation. The heaviest day was Friday, when 0.42 inches of moisture was recorded.
That precipitation is a welcome change from last year, when the moisture gauge at the Agricultural Science Center at Aztec Ruins measured only 2.28 inches of moisture for the water year, and gauge at the center in Farmington measured only 2.9 inches, according to The Daily Times archives. The Aztec total was less half of the previous record low, while the Farmington total was almost exactly half the previous record.
That left the county in very bad shape, moisture wise — something even a comparatively wet winter this year hasn't changed.
"Nothing big has changed on the drought monitor," Craft said today. " … It's going to take more than a few good storms to pick us up."
It takes more than one winter to recover
David Sypher, public works director for the city of Farmington, said he is feeling hopeful about the city's water outlook for the spring as he surveys what has happened this winter. But he cautioned the county is not out of the woods.
"It is wonderful with the weather we've been having," he said. "Unfortunately, the ground was too dry, it's going to take more than one winter to fully recover."
Federal data back up that contention. The U.S. Drought Monitor has most of San Juan County rated as being in extreme drought, the second-worst classification, while most of the northeast corner of the county is rated as being in exceptional drought, the worst classification.
And the Palmer Drought Severity Index operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration continues to have San Juan County listed in extreme drought, its worst classification.
The news isn't all bad. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's snowpack summary for the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan river basins shows the snowpack is at 115 percent of normal and 110 percent of average. That did not include the snow that was falling today and that is expected to continue falling through Tuesday.
That represents 237 percent of the snowpack for those basins at this time a year ago.
Sypher said he is taking a "so far, so good" approach to a possible beginning of the end to the drought. He said officials will have a much better idea by spring of what the county's situation will be for the rest of the year.
"That's when we're going to know have we made a big recovery or not, to make a call on what the drought's going to do," he said.
Will the El Niño help?
Craft sounded a relatively optimistic note, explaining that the recent NOAA confirmation of the existence of a weak El Niño in the Pacific Ocean slightly increases the chances of more moisture coming New Mexico's way.
"What we really are hoping for is a gangbuster spring, and perhaps the El Niño could deliver that," he said. "But weak El Niños aren't always conducive to that, so confidence is probably low that will happen."
The NOAA three-month outlook for northwest New Mexico is better than for the rest of the state. Craft said there is a 33 to 40 percent change for above-normal precipitation for the region, and that is the best forecast for any region in New Mexico.
He said the El Niño could already be making its presence felt in the American Southwest, explaining it may be a player in the current storm making its way through the state.
"There's a good chance the reason this storm is deepening and getting so strong is because of that," he said.
Sypher is withholding judgment, but it's clear he feels much better about things now than he did last winter.
"I'm just excited for May to see what comes out," he said. "Let's hope things continue as they are, and we'll be in good shape."
Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or via email at email@example.com.
John R. Moses contributed to this story.
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