City saw more than an inch of moisture in early March

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FARMINGTON — The region's long, slow climb out of an extended drought took another step forward with a wet end to winter, prompting the Farmington City Council on Tuesday to rescind its Stage 1 water shortage advisory.

Councilors voted unanimously to end the advisory after a presentation by Public Works Director David Sypher showed that conditions that led to implementation of the advisory in May had eased considerably since last fall.

The Stage 1 advisory asked residents to voluntarily conserve water, so the council's move to rescind it was largely a procedural move and carries little practical effect.

The city also enacted mandatory Stage 2 drought restrictions last summer, but those restrictions were lifted in October.

Sypher said in his presentation that Farmington Lake is 96.6 percent full, leaving it in better condition than it was at this time a year ago, when very little snow fell over the winter.

"We've done a great job," he said. "We were able to keep the lake filled."

'Tremendous snowpack'

Sypher also cited the depth of the snowpack in the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan river basins, which was listed at 161 percent of normal on Wednesday. That level is 297 percent of the snowpack's depth on the same date a year ago.

"There is a tremendous snowpack right now," he said.

Other indicators cited by Sypher were just as encouraging. Recent precipitation has been slightly above normal, and the 90-day forecast shows a reasonable chance that trend will continue, he said. Additionally, according to the Palmer Drought Severity Index, San Juan County is experiencing a very moist period, and Sypher said that has helped bring up the moisture content in local soil.

"I think it's well justified to remove the Stage 1 (advisory)," he said.

The council acted on his recommendation without discussion.

Officials:Winter storms help, but drought not over yet

Though weather conditions in San Juan County have grown drier and warmer in the last 10 days, the period before that was unlike anything local residents had seen in quite some time. According to the daily weather data posted on the New Mexico State University Agricultural Science Center website, Farmington received 1.27 inches of precipitation between March 3 and March 13, capped by the 0.98 inches of moisture that fell March 12-13. Agricultural research scientist Margaret West said the total for the month is 1.29 inches.

The city also saw 0.99 inches of precipitation in February and 0.56 inches in January, giving it 2.84 inches for the year to date — a total that is more than half of the 4.97 inches that fell at the NMSU site over the entirety of last year.

"That's significantly different already," West said.

The situation has improved a great deal in the Four Corners over the last three weeks, according to Andrew Church, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque. He noted that while the U.S. Drought Monitor lists much of San Juan County — along with much of surrounding McKinley, Rio Arriba and Sandoval counties – as being in extreme drought, that is a change from much of the last year, when most of eastern San Juan County, including the Farmington area, was listed as being in exceptional drought, the driest classification.

Soil moisture is key

Far northwest New Mexico remains the driest location in the country, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

But Church said the long-term forecast calls for slightly above-average precipitation for the area, possibly into June. And with temperatures expected to remain at normal to perhaps below-normal levels during that time, the moisture the area has accumulated should stick around for a while, he said.

"We are seeing soil moisture in the western one-third of San Juan County above 50 percent," he said. "That's something we haven't seen in the last couple of years."

Related: San Juan County's long-term moisture situation a mixed bag

Things aren't quite as good in the Farmington area, he said, where the soil moisture content ranges from 37 to 39 percent. But it's much better than it was around October, he said, when that figure was hovering at less than 10 percent.

Church said any soil moisture content of more than 40 percent is considered relatively moist for the Colorado plateau.

Normal or less-than-normal temperatures have prevailed for the Four Corners for most of March, he said, and that means that an early melt to the snowpack, which some observers feared, has not developed.

"We've been able to hang on to the snowpack, which is good news as we come into April," he said, adding that the snowpack at elevations higher than 10,000 feet should survive into late May or early June.

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The temperature outlook for the rest of spring is much the same, he said, and that represents a departure from recent history, as well.

"We haven't seen an outlook like that for quite some time," he said. "Over the last 15 years, just about every season has been above average, temperature wise."

Variations in local precipitation are nothing new, West noted, explaining that since NMSU began keeping records for Farmington in 1969, the annual moisture totals have ranged from a high of 14.65 inches in 1986 to a low of 3.57 inches in 1976. The university's recent and long-term local data can be found by visit https://farmingtonsc.nmsu.edu and selecting the "Projects and results" tab.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610.

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