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Mountain snowpack has faded after promising early start

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FARMINGTON — While the three-month precipitation outlook for the Four Corners isn't exactly encouraging, a strong storm system expected to roll through the area this weekend should provide some temporary relief from the drought.

The National Weather Service office in Albuquerque is forecasting 0.2 inches of precipitation for the Farmington area on Feb. 23. Most of that will be rain, but meteorologist Clay Anderson said the area could see some light snow that morning accumulating on grassy areas and rooftops.

Just north of the state line, the outlook is much more promising for those hoping for moisture. From the area north of Durango, Colorado, to Pagosa Springs, snowfall accumulations of 12 to 18 inches are possible, Anderson said, with the highest peaks registering 18 to 24 inches. The Durango area itself is expected to receive 2 to 4 inches of powder, he said.

The system will roll along the New Mexico-Colorado border throughout the day, dropping moisture as it proceeds, according to Anderson. The peaks outside Chama could see 1 to 2 feet of show, he said.

The storm should help replenish the snowpack in the San Juan Mountains, which has been declining steadily for the past several weeks. As of Dec. 30, 2019, the snowpack in the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan river basins was 134 percent of normal for Water Year 2020. But a dearth of snow since then has resulted in a decline to 95 percent of normal.

Locked in a severe drought

Much of northwest New Mexico and San Juan County remains locked in a severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which is the third-driest classification behind extreme drought and exceptional drought. That designation covers all of San Juan County except for a sliver in the southwest corner, which is classified as being in a moderate drought.

The severe drought also covers portions of McKinley, Rio Arriba and Sandoval counties in the northwest corner of the state, as well as parts of Union, Colfax and Mora counties in the northeast corner of the state. Most of the rest of the state, essentially the southern two-thirds of New Mexico, is classified as being just abnormally dry or reporting no drought conditions at all.

The severe drought also covers much of northern Arizona, as well as small parts of southeast Utah and southwest Colorado.

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Anderson said the long-term forecast for northwest New Mexico leans toward below-average precipitation and above-average temperatures, meaning the likelihood of an early spring. But he said conditions can change quickly, and he described the storm system due to move through the state on Feb. 23 as very impressive.

"That has been the trend," he said, acknowledging the relatively warm and dry conditions in San Juan County since the beginning of the year. "But this system coming this weekend should bring most of the (San Juan Mountains) snowpack back above average."

Still, Anderson emphasized the weekend storm is just one system, and it will take much more than that to get the Four Corners area out of the drought. He said the area's next chance for precipitation won't come until a week after this system moves through.

A silver lining

A silver lining to the warm and dry long-term forecast for San Juan County is that conditions in southwest Colorado — where the snowpack resides — call for below-average temperatures over the next three months, Anderson said. That could help the snowpack linger as spring progresses.

Snowpack conditions in the rest of the state vary widely. Anderson said the snowpack in the Sangre de Cristos runs from 112 to 122 percent of normal, but it is slightly below normal in the Jemez Mountains.

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Most basins in the southern portion of the state are below normal, although conditions in the Gila River Basin are exceptionally varied, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service website. The Silver Creek Divide there is at 130 percent of the normal, but Signal Peak is at zero and Lookout Mountain is at 10 percent.

That corner of the state also should see substantial moisture from another system this weekend, Anderson said, noting that locations above 9,000 or 10,000 feet could see 2 feet or more of snow, while lower-elevations will receive 2 to 3 inches of rain.

This time last year, the northwest corner of the state was in a weather pattern that saw regular snowfall well into May, leading to one of the healthiest snowpacks in decades. Nothing like that appears to be in the cards this year, Anderson said, but he said the jury is still out on whether it will turn out to be a notably dry spring.

"I think we can be encouraged by the current set-up and see what happens thereafter," 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/216TU0e

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