Farmington struggles through driest 12 months in at least 23 years

Farmington has received only 3.37 inches of moisture in 2020, well below its approximately 11-inch average.

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
Patchy snow from last week's storm dots a hillside and the ballfields at the Farmington Sports Complex on Dec. 21, 2020. This is likely to go down as the driest year in Farmington in at least 23 years.
  • Farmington's official reporting station is at the Four Corners Regional Airport
  • The city normally receives approximately 11 inches of moisture a year
  • The city has met or exceeded that 11-inch average only once since 1999

FARMINGTON — Another trip around the sun, another abnormally dry year in Farmington.

In what is becoming a depressing annual ritual, the National Weather Service in Albuquerque is reporting that — barring a deluge of moisture in the final few days of 2020 — Farmington has registered another bone-dry 12 months.

In fact, says Alyssa Clements, a meteorologist for the NWS in Albuquerque, this year appears to be driest one in Farmington in at least 23 years.

As of Dec. 21, the Four Corners Regional Airport had registered only 3.37 inches of precipitation for the year — less than a third of its normal annual moisture of approximately 11 inches, she said. That development appears to follow a trend of reduced precipitation in Farmington, as the city has met or exceeded that 11-inch average only once since 1999.

"This is going to go down as likely one of the driest years on record for that area," Clements said.

The remnants of a snowstorm last week cling to a hillside near the Farmington Sports Complex on Dec. 21, 2020.

Farmington's driest year on record

Record keeping in Farmington goes back to 1941, although there is a 28-year gap from 1970 through 1997 for which no precipitation totals for Farmington exist, Clements said. So it's impossible to say if this is, in fact, the driest year on record here, although none of the years for which records exist can match it. The closest year on record was 1956, when only 3.92 inches of moisture fell.

The only good year Farmington has seen since that 1998 resumption in record keeping was 2015, when the city received a "bounty" of 11.3 inches, although that is actually only a little more than the historical average. In the five years since then, Farmington hasn't come close to reaching that norm, totaling 7.33 inches in 2016, 7.58 in 2017, 4.32 in 2018, 8.1 last year and this year's 3.37.

In fact, since 1998, Farmington has reached double digits in precipitation only twice — in the aforementioned 2015 and in 2010, when 10.16 inches fell — in 23 years.

That may sound extreme, but it is not unprecedented. From 1941, when precipitation record keeping in Farmington began, through 1963 — a period of 24 years — the city registered double-digit precipitation only once, a 13.74-inch windfall in 1957.

Clements said the figures that leap out at her from the historic data in Farmington are how little monsoon moisture the city has received for the past several years. The annual totals are split into monthly sums, and, with very few exceptions, the July-August-September totals during that time period are paltry compared to what the city used to experience on a regular basis.

The sun sinks over the San Juan River in west Farmington on Dec. 21, 2020, as the city nears completion of one of its driest years in history.

In 2013, Farmington drew 5.28 inches of rain in that three-month window, but it hasn't come close to matching that total since then. The best monsoon in that seven-year period was 2017, when 3.63 inches of rain fell on the city. But the last two summers have been especially dry, with only 0.44 inches coming in 2019 and 0.67 in 2020. Farmington has experienced poor monsoon seasons in the past, but this extended run of dry summers is essentially unprecedented in the city's recorded history.

"This may be the new normal," Clements said.

Relief in the forecast?

The prospects for significant moisture over the next few months are not good, although Clements said they are slightly better than forecasters were predicting a few months ago. With a La Niña having set up in the Pacific Ocean — a phenomenon that typically leads to drier, warmer weather in the American Southwest — forecasters were not anticipating much snow in the region this season.

But Clements said that initial forecast may have been a little too pessimistic.

"Our outlook has changed slightly," she said. "As far as our (precipitation) totals go, they may be not quite so below normal as anticipated."

Snow melts in a ravine near the Farmington Sports Complex on Dec. 21, 2020.

She said a series of strong storms in September and October really helped some portions of New Mexico, especially the northern mountains.

And some mild relief could be on the way to San Juan County as soon as early next week. Clements said a potential storm system could blow through on Dec. 28 or Dec. 29, although she expects that moisture to take the form of rain instead of snow for everywhere but the higher elevations.

'It's really the whole state'

It may be a small comfort, but Clements noted the Farmington area is not unique in enduring parched conditions. She said many other parts of New Mexico, including the southeast corner, are just as bad off.

"San Juan County's not alone," she said. "It's really the whole state, unfortunately, which is seeing worsening drought conditions."

A look at the U.S. Drought Monitor website confirms Clements' assessment. Approximately half the state is classified as being in exceptional drought, the most severe condition. Lea, Eddy and Chaves counties in southeast New Mexico are entirely mired in exceptional drought, and four others — Roosevelt, Curry, Lincoln and De Baca — have only a small amount of territory that is classified as being in extreme drought, the second-worst category.

Several counties in the southwest corner of the state and in north-central New Mexico also are mired in exceptional or extreme drought. Approximately three-quarters of San Juan County is in exceptional drought, with the southwest corner of the county in extreme drought.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or Support local journalism with a digital subscription.