Is New Mexico free from drought? Not for ranchers in the southeast
A decades-long drought across New Mexico appears to be subsiding, with drought conditions remaining in the southeast and northwest regions of the state.
Recent data from the U.S. Drought Monitor shows about 64 percent of New Mexico is showing no drought conditions, up from 39 percent three months ago and 0.16 percent last year.
About 35 percent of the state is experiencing “abnormally dry” conditions, records show, down from 61 percent three months ago and 99 percent last year.
“Moderate drought” conditions were reported in about 19 percent of the state, with 42 percent reported three months ago and 99 percent reported last year.
Severe, extreme and exceptional drought conditions were not reported anywhere in the state.
One year ago, 89 percent of the state was listed under “severe drought,” down to 32 percent three months ago.
About 63 percent of the state was in “extreme drought” a year ago, records show, reduced to 13 percent three months ago.
“Exceptional drought” conditions were reported in 18 percent of the state.
David Hennig, meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Midland-Odessa Office said southeast New Mexico remained abnormally dry this year, even as moisture moved in from the east and west.
He said New Mexico was caught in the middle of weather patterns pushing moisture from both sides north to states such as Nevada and Colorado.
“There’s been a deep trough in California, so they’ve gotten a lot of rain,” Hennig said. “In West Texas, we’ve had a lot of gulf moisture. New Mexico is kind of stuck in the middle. Not everyone can get rain.”
But conditions could improve soon, he said, with storms systems forming west of the Pecos River and low-pressure systems moving further south.
Hennig said eastern Lea County already received a normal level of moisture, but Eddy County and Guadalupe Mountains region continued to struggle.
“When they reach out here, we’re able to get rainfall,” he said.
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13 counties where drought conditions persist
- San Juan
- Rio Arriba
- Santa Fe
Southeast prays for rain
Despite stabilizing conditions, southeast New Mexico remains in a continuing drought, said Woods Houghton, Eddy County agricultural extension agent at New Mexico State University.
He pointed to snow packs in northern New Mexico feeding the Rio Grande River and quenching the region.
But the Pecos River in southeast New Mexico relies mostly on rainfall, Houghton said, and the region has gone about 68 days without “effective rainfall” or rainfall of a quarter-inch or more.
“It’s pretty dry,” Houghton said. “We’re not seeing much green. We need rain to make things grow. The northern part of the state got a lot of snowfall. That’s why they’re doing so well."
Houghton explained that the area often goes through a cycle - about five years dry, and three years wet- and this year is already looking like a dry year.
Looking at historical data, Houghton said rainfall in Eddy County was on a “downward slope” since 1880.
He said range grass is struggling for moisture, driving up the costs for ranching as ranchers must purchase supplemental feed for cattle.
Many local ranchers are already reducing their herds, Houghton said. And dirt tanks appear to be dropping by up to 8 inches per day, he said.
“We’re in a perpetual drought interrupted by moments of moisture,” Houghton said. “Most of our ranchers are prepared for that. If you’re in agriculture, you prepare for drought. That’s just part of life.”
Looking ahead, Houghton said the monsoon should bring some rainfall this year and he hoped it would come sooner rather than later.
The monsoon storms have occurred later than normal in recent years, he said, starting in late August rather than early July.
“We should see a lot of rainfall, but it will come later,” Houghton said. “I wish it would come faster. We’ve been getting less rainfall since 1880. One of these days it’s going to turn. I just don’t know when that will be.”
Northwest in 'recovery' mode
Last year, much of northwest New Mexico was listed as suffering "extreme" or "exceptional" drought conditions.
That was one of the region's driest years on record, per NMSU data, but in just one year, conditions improved to just "abnormally dry" or "moderate" drought, per the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Bonnie Hopkins, San Juan County agricultural extension agent at NMSU said the region is seeing a dramatic improvement.
"We're rapidly coming out of the drought," she said. "We've got people up here saying this is the wettest spring they've seen in 60 years."
Moisture in the northwest is fed by snow packs that melt and flow into local rivers, she said.
As of Wednesday, Red Mountain had 80 inches of snow, 250 percent above normal, while Wolf Creek had 94 inches or 276 percent above normal.
"We're really grateful here in the northwest," Hopkins said. "We're hoping to have a great growing season. Things are looking great."
She said northwest New Mexico's farmers and ranchers weathered last year's challenges, proving resilient in the face of extremely dry conditions and a lack of water to grow feed for livestock or to water crops.
The rain this year, Hopkins said, came in small increments over a longer amount of time, allowing more of it to be absorbed into the ground.
Heavier, sporadic rains that often characterize the monsoon can erode soil and overwhelm vegetation, she said.
"Last year was really tough for everyone," Hopkins said. "Everyone is in recovery mode. They're taking advantage of the moisture while they can."
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Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, firstname.lastname@example.org or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.