Recent storms in Colorado improved snowpack but had little impact on New Mexico drought

Warmer, drier weather expected across area in days ahead

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
The snowpack in the mountains of southwest Colorado may be in its best condition all season, but San Juan County and the rest of New Mexico are a long way from escaping the drought.
  • A trio of storms left 4 to 5 inches of snow in parts of Farmington, Aztec and Bloomfield from Feb. 12 through Feb. 16.
  • Only two counties in New Mexico are not characterized as being in exceptional drought by the U.S. Drought Monitor.
  • Farmington's year-to-date precipitation total is close to normal.

FARMINGTON — A recent trio of storms that provided significant moisture to many parts of San Juan County has brought the snowpack up to near normal in the mountains of southwest Colorado for the first time all season.

But it did little to make a dent in the drought that has plagued the area for the last year and a half.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's summary for the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan river basins, the snowpack stood at 89% of normal and 84% of average on Feb. 19. That was a significant step up from just 10 days earlier, when those figures were near 60% and falling rapidly.

Sharon Sullivan, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service bureau in Albuquerque, said those figures were buoyed by storms that left 4 to 5 inches of snow in parts of Farmington, Aztec and Bloomfield from Feb. 12 through Feb. 16.

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But anyone who takes this as a sign that the drought has been chased away would be well advised to curb his or her enthusiasm. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, most of San Juan County remains locked in exceptional drought, the worst classification. That includes all but the southwest corner of the county, which is characterized as being in extreme drought, the second-worst category, or severe drought, the third-worst category in the five-tier drought system.

The snowpack in the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan river basins stood at 89% of normal and 84% of average on Feb. 16.

Sullivan said the drought picture had improved slightly after the recent round of storms, and she noted the U.S. Drought Monitor map had not been updated since Feb. 16, so it may have missed some additional moisture that came after that point.

"It did help, to some extent, and I would expect to see some improvement on the map," she said. "But if we continue to see these same conditions, that won't last."

The outlook for significant additional moisture is not promising. Sullivan said the long-range forecast calls for above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation in the area.

San Juan County residents may find some small consolation in the fact that conditions are even worse in other parts of the state. According to the drought monitor, 54.2% of the state is characterized as being in exceptional drought — a condition that can lead to the closure of federal lands for fire precautions, the implementation of burn bans by local governments, the encroachment of bears on developed areas, a change in flight patterns by migratory birds and the absence of surface water for agricultural use, leading farmers to rely on wells.

The state's southeast corner has been hit the hardest, with two counties — Eddy County and Chaves County — entirely in exceptional drought, and four others — De Baca, Curry, Roosevelt and Lea counties — having only small slivers of their territory escaping that designation. Additionally, most of Lincoln and Torrance counties are in exceptional drought.

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In all, all or part of 31 of New Mexico's 33 counties are experiencing exceptional drought. In fact, it is far easier to count those that are not designated as such — Union and Sierra are the only exceptions — than it is to count those that are. A tiny patch of Union County in the northeast corner of the state is the only drought-free area in New Mexico, and even that piece of land is characterized as being abnormally dry.

Nearly 7% of the continental United States is characterized as being in exceptional drought, including parts of New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California. Arizona is the hardest hit, with the majority of the state under that designation.

A recent trio of storms helped replenish the snowpack in the mountains of southwest Colorado, but conditions are not optimal for more moisture over the next several weeks.

But the picture has been improving of late in San Juan County. Sullivan noted that Farmington has received 1.26 inches of precipitation for the year to date, only slightly less than the 1.53 inches that it normally could expect at this point.

"It's hasn't been looking bad," she said. "At the beginning of February, there was a much larger gap, but it has started to close up over the last several days."

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Sullivan said that's a relatively good position for Farmington to be in during a La Niña year, which typically results in less precipitation and warmer temperatures than normal. She also noted there may be a slight reason for optimism about the chances of a good monsoon season this summer.

"We are hoping for that," she said, explaining that while the long-term outlook for June, July and August calls for above-average temperatures for much of the U.S., it rates the chances for above-average or below-average precipitation as even. That means it could fall either way, she said.

In the short term, the weather will return to a drier and warmer pattern in San Juan County, she said, before chances increase for the onset of a new system by the middle of the week.

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