Higher elevations see nearly 20 inches of powder

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FARMINGTON — The calendar may have turned to May more than a week ago, but that doesn't mean winter is through with New Mexico, as a late-season storm has dumped significant snowfall on the state's higher elevations and brought welcome rainfall to much of the rest of the state.

The system moved into the state on May 9, and by the afternoon of May 10 it had made its presence felt across New Mexico. Snowfall totals above 9,000 feet in the Farmington area ranged from 10 to 20 inches, and an additional 3 to 6 inches was expected through May 11, according to Brian Guyer, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque.

He said parts of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains around Angel Fire and Taos had seen upward of 18 inches of snow, and Santa Fe, Raton and Las Vegas, New Mexico, had experienced 1 to 2 inches of snowfall, though the ground was too warm for the snow to accumulate, Guyer said.

Even the area around Ski Apache, a ski resort located just outside Ruidoso in the south-central region of New Mexico, had received an inch of snow by May 10. That forced the resort to close for the day, as it already had begun offering such warm-weather activities as a zipline, mountain biking and gondola rides, according to its website.

Areas of the state that were too warm for snow had received significant rainfall, Guyer said.

"It's been fairly widespread, but the Continental Divide region picked up the most — that and the northern high terrain," Guyer said.

'It's really not terribly unusual'

The snow may have come as a surprise to those who assumed a comparatively warm April across most of New Mexico meant they had seen the last of winter. The state experienced a handful of relatively minor storms in the northern, central and south-central mountains throughout the month, but April was marked mostly by strong wind conditions that caused serious damage early in the month.

Then came this week's storm, which made much of the state feel more like the middle of March than early May.

"Last year at this time, parts of the state were in the 80s or 90s, so it's quite a difference," he said.

Nevertheless, the system that has enveloped the state is far from unheard of for this time of year.

"It's really not terribly unusual for us to see significant snowfall in the high terrain (in early May)," he said. "But it's been a while."

More significant than the precipitation has been the cool temperatures the system brought with it. Mid-day temperatures across the state on May 10 ranged from 49 degrees in Farmington, 42 in Santa Fe and 43 in Albuquerque, to 51 in Roswell, 47 in Socorro and 39 in Sierra Blanca.

"The temperatures we're seeing range from 20 to 30 degrees below normal for (May 10)," Guyer said.

That wet and cool trend was expected to continue through May 12. But Guyer said another storm system is expected to move through the state by May 16 or 17, bringing precipitation totals ranging from a half inch to an inch and a half to various areas of the state.

When will spring weather return?

So, when can New Mexicans expect a return to warm, sunny spring weather?

"That's a good question," Guyer said. "Right now, it looks like temperatures are going to stay below normal for the next week, through that next system."

The cool temperatures should have a positive impact on what has turned out to be an abundant snowpack for most of the state, keeping that powder from melting too quickly and leading to excessive runoff and flooding.

"A lot of the area creeks and rivers are rising," Guyer said on May 10, especially the Rio Grande and the San Juan. "We will continue to see those rise. But there's no forecast for now of flooding through the end of May. That's something we'll have to keep an eye on."

Guyer did encourage people to stay clear of riverbanks and arroyos for the next several weeks, warning that they will carry the potential for danger.

"If they venture into the water, they need to be prepared for very cold conditions," he said.

Overall, this winter was a welcome change from many of those that preceded it over the past several years.

"I believe we're looking at one of the best seasons we've had since 2004," Guyer said. "There have been some other good years, but in terms of runoff, we're thinking this is probably a lot like 2004. … The good thing about this season is it stayed cool and stayed moist, so we're maximizing the water that we can for the watersheds."

Snowpack figures high

As of May 10, the snowpack summary on the U.S. Department of Agriculture website for the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan river basins showed a snowpack that was 195 percent of normal and more than 1,700 percent greater than last year's total. The Rio Grande basin summary was at 154 percent of normal and nearly 2,200 percent of last year.

Figures posted May 10 on the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service website showing snowpack summaries for the Sangre de Cristos revealed averages ranging from 107 percent at Ute Creek to 167 percent on the Upper Rio Grande.

Even the Gila Mountains in the state's southeast quadrant still were reporting strong snowpack figures on May 10. The median figures for locations ranged from 121 percent at Frisco Divide to 274 percent at McKnight Cabin, according to the website. The snowpack at Sierra Blanca in the Sacramento Mountains in south-central New Mexico was 184 percent of the median.

Those totals are especially good news for the state's agricultural producers. By late April, the flow of the middle Rio Grande was 10 times what it was at the same period in 2018, and that was before this storm hit. That likely means a significant increase in the water level at Elephant Butte Lake, the state's largest and most important reservoir.

Dry conditions experienced over several years had brought the lake's level down to 3 percent of capacity by last fall, according to the Las Cruces Sun, but that measurement had climbed to 14 percent by late April and was at 17 percent on May 10.

The Office of the State Engineer, which administers New Mexico's water resources, said May 10 that modeling projections show the storage in Elephant Butte will exceed 600,000 acre-feet after this year's runoff, which would be the highest level for the reservoir since approximately 2010.

Precipitation could help end drought

State Engineer John D'Antonio downplayed the risk of flooding on the Rio Grande in an email to The Daily Times.

"Although river flows on the main stem of the Rio Grande due to snowmelt are anticipated to increase between now and June, we are confident that the water can be safely managed to control the risk of flooding," he stated. "The good news is that it will be the best year in quite a long time for people who enjoy canoeing and river rafting. However, people who live in the Rio Grande Valley will see higher than normal flows, and should take proper precautions when walking, picknicking, or working in the bosque near the river.

Guyer sounded an optimistic note about a possible end to the drought that has had most of New Mexico in its grip for the past few years.

"Oh, it's provided a significant improvement," he said of the strong winter. "Most of the state, except for the northwest, is already out of severe drought, and I think this storm system will likely put an end to that."

The U.S. Drought Monitor map backs up Guyer's assessment. Nearly half the state has emerged completely from the drought, although most of northern and western New Mexico — along with a portion of south-central New Mexico — are still classified as experiencing a moderate drought or abnormally dry conditions.

The hardest-hit area of the state, San Juan County, spent most of the last year in exceptional drought, the worst classification on the agency's drought scale. But its condition has improved markedly over the past three months. Most of the county has improved three steps on the scale to moderate drought, although much of its northeast corner remains in severe drought — the only location in the United States to carry that designation.

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

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