June 6, 2019

Legislators hear about improving shorter-term drought conditions

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Laura Paskus

Rio Grande near Escondida, N.M. in mid-May 2019.

It’s not just your imagination: Things really are greener around New Mexico this year.

And the state Legislature’s interim Water and Natural Resources Committee heard the good news in an update from State Climatologist Dr. David DuBois.

“We’ve done really well (for) this time of year,” DuBois told the committee.

Not only has this water year, which begins on Oct. 1, been well above average, the temperatures have also been cooler than in the past few years, which also helps with the water situation. Last year, for example, was the fourth-warmest temperature on record for the state.

When looking at the U.S. Drought Monitor, which tracks shorter-term meteorological drought, nearly the entire state was showing improvement over a year ago when nearly 20 percent of the state suffered from exceptional drought, the highest level on the monitor. Only 0.16 percent of the state was in normal condition.

In the most recent U.S. Drought Monitor report, 64.63 percent of the state was in normal conditions and no areas of the state suffered from even severe drought, the third-highest rating.

According to SNOTEL measurements, nearly all of the state’s basins saw above average snowpack this year, led by the Animas River basin which had 138 percent of average snowpack.

And there’s still snow on some mountains. In the Rio Grande basin, for example, the latest measurement showed 1.9 inches of snow water equivalent as of June 5 after a peak of 15.4 inches in March. In 2018, the Rio Grande basin had no snow water equivalent left by May 1 after a peak of just 4.2 inches.

“It’s a real good flip from the worst to one of the best,” DuBois said of the snow-water equivalent.

Still, DuBois cautioned that this doesn’t mean things are back to normal in New Mexico.

The current level of real, longer-term surface water drought began in the late 1990s, after wet years through the 1980s and ‘90s.

“Even though we’ve had some really good rains the past few weeks, we’ve been looking at longer-term droughts,” DuBois told the committee.

State Engineer John D’Antonio told the committee that the state is now in a “recovery phase” when it comes to the state’s water storage.

Part of that is shown by the fact that New Mexico is no longer in Article VII restrictions in the Rio Grande Compact,

He said that they expect Elephant Butte Reservoir to top out between 600,000 and 700,000 acre-feet. As of June 5, Elephant Butte is at 490,457 acre-feet, just under 25 percent of capacity. When the combined storage at Elephant Butte and Caballo Reservoir drops below 400,000 acre-feet, this triggers Article VII restrictions, which means New Mexico and Colorado can’t store water at any upstream reservoirs built after 1929.

“We’re much better off than we were a year ago and as we collect water, we’ll see where the reservoirs end up,” D’Antono told the committee.