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Conditions in drought-stricken NM could get worse because of La Niña

'No relief in sight,' NWS meteorologist says

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
Fall foliage may be reaching its peak of color in San Juan County, but with temperatures clinging to or near the 80s, it still feels very much like summer.
  • Below-average precipitation and above-average temperatures are expected this winter for the American Southwest.
  • All of New Mexico is experiencing some form of drought, and more than 50% of the state is experiencing extreme or exceptional drought.
  • The dry conditions throughout New Mexico have been accompanied by unseasonably warm temperatures this fall.

FARMINGTON — New Mexico residents who were counting on fall and winter to provide some relief from the abnormally dry weather the state has experienced for most of this year are likely to be disappointed, as conditions are likely to get even worse over the next several months.

That's according to the National Weather Service in Albuquerque. Meteorologist Clay Anderson said a La Niña climate pattern has developed, which means below-average precipitation and above-average temperatures are expected this winter for the American Southwest.

"That generally does not bode well for us," Anderson said, adding that the short-term forecast is no better. "Over the next seven to 10 days, there is no relief in sight."

Even before the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued its La Niña advisory last month, it was clear New Mexico already was in a bad position when it came to precipitation. The state had experienced a dry winter, an early start to summer and another near-nonexistent monsoon season, leaving the entire state hurting for moisture.

Anderson said when the data for the U.S. Drought Monitor was updated on Oct. 6, all of New Mexico was characterized as experiencing some form of drought, and more than 50% of the state was experiencing extreme (the second-worst category) or exceptional drought (the worse category).

"That (exceptional drought) category is likely to expand significantly in the coming weeks," he said.

Of the state's 33 counties, parts of 17 are experiencing exceptional drought, and those counties are scattered throughout the state, from the northwest, north-central, southwest and southeast.

Anderson said most of the state has seen little to no precipitation for most of 2020, aside from a swath of south-central New Mexico, which is one of the few parts of the state experiencing only a moderate drought.

After a year that has produced very little moisture, the bed of the Animas River in Farmington lies mostly exposed on Oct. 10, 2020.

Las Cruces, for example, had drawn 6.3 inches of precipitation at its reporting station at the New Mexico State University coop by Oct. 8, which was not much less than its normal total of approximately 7 inches for that date. Anderson noted that total was helped considerably by the 2.64 inches of moisture Las Cruces received in March.

Also faring comparatively well is Clayton in far eastern New Mexico, which reported 10.73 inches of precipitation by Oct. 8, although that still left that town well short of its normal total of 14.18 inches for that date.

Other parts of the state have not been as fortunate. Albuquerque has had only 5.3 inches so far, Anderson said, and its year-to-date total is normally 7.68 inches. Roswell had reported 5.37 inches of moisture by Oct. 8, less than half its normal total of 10.8 inches for that date. And Farmington had received only 2.69 inches, far below its normal total of approximately 6 inches for the year to date.

"Oh, wow, Farmington's hurting bad," Anderson said, checking the figures. " … That's worse than Roswell."

Like much of the rest of New Mexico, the Farmington area is mired in an exceptional drought, as the low flow in the Animas River illustrates.

Santa Fe had received 6.25 inches of moisture by Oct. 8, but that figure paled in comparison to its normal total of approximately 10.5 inches for that date.

New Mexico is hardly alone in experiencing drought conditions. Numerous counties in Colorado, Utah, Nevada and Arizona are also characterized as being in exceptional drought, and there is not a single county anywhere among the five states that is free of some degree of drought.

Misery loves company, it seems.

"Yeah, that's a good way of putting it," Anderson said, adding that such a widespread drought has serious implications for the entire region in regard to water supply, river flows, the ski industry and wildfires.

The Rio Grande south of Albuquerque has seen its flow diminished considerably over the past several months, Anderson said, although it has not run dry yet.

"There's still a little bit of flow," he said. "But there's no doubt in my mind that's coming."

Anderson said it can be difficult to predict when a La Niña will end, but he explained that computer modeling of such phenomena has improved in recent years, and there are indications this year's La Niña will not drag on indefinitely.

"It's forecast to continue strengthening into the winter months," he said. "But by springtime and definitely by summer, it should be back into a neutral state."

That time frame would make this La Niña a relatively short one, he said.

"Hopefully, we don't get a double dip," Anderson said. "We've had back-to-back La Niña years."

Pedestrians stroll across the Animas Bridge between Animas and Berg Parks in Farmington on Oct. 10, 2020.

The dry conditions throughout New Mexico have been accompanied by unseasonably warm temperatures this fall — another trend that isn't expected to change, Anderson said. The NOAA forecast through December calls for above-normal temperatures for the entire region, with the center of that hot zone centered directly on New Mexico — an indication that federal officials have a high degree of confidence in that assessment for the Land of Enchantment, he said.

"This is just kind of a new normal for us, and that does not change any time soon," Anderson said.

In addition to charting daily high and low temperatures for communities throughout the state, the NWS also keeps track of average daily temperatures — a figure that can provide a better picture of how comparatively warm or cool a specific location has been, he said.

Most parts of New Mexico have been roughly 5.5 degrees above normal this month, according to Anderson, but others are far exceeding that measure. Farmington, for instance, has averaged 10 degrees above normal for October, while Roswell, where temperatures reached into the middle 90s in recent days, has been 16 degrees warmer than average.

The state is expected to experience a brief cool down this weekend, but Anderson said it likely won't last. By Oct. 14, the temperature in Farmington is expected to be back to 10 degrees warmer than average, and other parts of the state will follow suit, he said.

"That tells you how bad it is when we get these cool fronts come through and all they do is get us to near normal," Anderson said.

Even if the state's driest counties do see some unexpected precipitation in the weeks ahead, Anderson explained that would be little more than a moral victory.

"It's not going to make a dent in our drought," he said, explaining that only a long-term change in the Southwest weather pattern will have a substantial impact on conditions. That means chances are good 2021 won't be noticeably wetter than its predecessor.

" … When we get in these situations, it's hard to get out of them," Anderson said.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.