While hope for a good year remains for New Mexico farmers and ranchers, state and national weather forecasters have dropped a bomb on enthusiasm prompted by late fall and early winter rains the state received last year.
The National Weather Service's Albuquerque office announced during a monthly meeting of state and federal fire and water officials that the first quarter of the year is one of New Mexico's driest starts ever for the first two-plus months of any year on record.
"We are seeing intense dry conditions in eastern New Mexico especially and extending into the Texas Panhandle. If conditions persist we certainly will continue to see worsening conditions not just in that area but all across the state," says National Weather Service (NWS) meteorologist Brian Guyer in Albuquerque.
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He says much of New Mexico experienced substantial rain events last September and while October and November were not active wet months, the rains returned in December, setting up what looked to be a good start to 2014.
"But as January and February rolled around hopes were greatly diminished for a wet winter and we now find ourselves in a place all too familiar, where things can get worse if we don't get some rain relief soon," he added.
Of equal concern is the shortage of snowpack in the mountains. In spring when the snow melts, the state benefits from runoffs that drain into rivers and streams and help replenish ground water as well. But in spite of early snow showers in the mountains last fall, the state is experiencing low levels of snow accumulations. Guyer said the early snows looked good and a few substantial snow events occurred throughout the season, but the mountains have light to non-existent snowpacks going into the spring season.
"The Sangre de Cristo Mountains had about 48 percent of average snowpack this year, and the Rio Hondo Basin around Ruidoso only had about 6 percent of average, so there is not much hope of a lot of water from that," Guyer said. "Snowpack conditions have already deteriorated statewide. Many areas have no snowpack remaining and only higher elevations have much snow left, so we're not looking for a lot of relief in that department."
Remembering the Dust Bowl years
Guyer also talked about intensifying dry soil and gusty spring winds across eastern New Mexico that will continue to create dust storm conditions.
Last week heavy blowing sand storms roared across part of the Texas Panhandle and officials said it was not dust kicked up from Texas fields but was New Mexico dirt riding heavy winds from the west.
"We have seen significant blowing dust events this year, more so than in several decades, even during years with exceptional dry weather conditions. Our dust blowing season usually peaks around mid-to-late April or early May, so we are experiencing major dust events to be so early in the season," Guyer said.
While drought conditions are expected to continue, forecasters are saying even with the limited rain to start the spring season, hope remains. Guyer says the official forecast calls for are equal chances of precipitation over the new few months.
"And there are those out there that have conducted studies that show it may not be such a dry spring after all because we are seeing some signs of the development of an El Nino system forming in the eastern Pacific, and this does have some affect on what happens here in New Mexico, especially as we approach the cool season and going into winter next year," he said.
Guyer says farmers and ranchers can get up to date drought reports on the NWS Albuquerque website at http://www.srh.noaa.gov/abq/?n=drought. Here you can also study climate data and get the latest forecast for the region.
Meanwhile, as conditions continue to dry heading into April, state and federal fire officials are warning it could be another active wildfire season. NWS Albuquerque issued a hazardous weather outlook last week warning of dangerous fire conditions, especially in northern and central parts of the state. Forecasters say the most critical fire conditions exist from the central highlands to the northeast plains.
Nationwide, a very active fire year is forecast. As of this writing there were six large fires burning nationwide, two in Texas, two in Oklahoma and one in California. But of greater significance is the number of wildfires, large and small, reported between Jan. 1 through Mar. 21 this year.
A total of 9,483 fires have been reported so far this year compared to only 5,962 for the same period last year. This year the number of acres burned totaled about 128,000 acres, more than double the number of acres burned last year during the same period.
The worst first quarter period for wildfires in recent memory occurred in 2006 when nearly 1.8 million acres were burned by more than 17,000 fires for the period Jan. 1 through Mar. 21.