A recent spate of showers whipping across New Mexico has helped ease short-term drought conditions, but no one is remotely ready to sound the all-clear, reports a New Mexico State University expert.

Although seasonal forecasts suggest the possibility of more showers this spring, the drought is expected to persist, said Denise McWilliams, an agronomist with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service. Cropping areas are especially hard hit, and limited yields are expected, she said

“Plan for a hot, dry summer,” McWilliams said. “About the only thing we can do is hope for timely rains.”

Most of New Mexico has received above-average precipitation since October. Western and southern portions of the state received additional rain last month. Meanwhile, some of the state's higher elevations received unexpectedly heavy snows from mid-February through mid-March.

Still, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's official drought monitor indicates exceptional drought in New Mexico due to deficient groundwater levels. Indeed, the New Mexico Natural Resource Conservation Service's drought status map remains unchanged since last September.

“The middle and lower Rio Grande area is still in severe drought,” said Ted Sammis, state climatologist and director of the New Mexico Climate Center at NMSU. About the only areas that have seen any improvement are in the north and northwestern portions of the state because of earlier rain and snow, he said.

To review the latest information on New Mexico's drought conditions, the New Mexico Climate Center Web site (http://weather.nmsu.edu/) has been developed, offering the latest information about climate, crop water use, and insect development using growing degree-days.

“We have the only real-time climate data in the state,” Sammis said.

Users can also retrieve climate data, which is presented in text and graphical forms, for 138 specific geographical areas and time frames. The center uses a computerized data collection system to provide statewide weather reports for previous days, as well as historical information.

In addition, electronic data logger machines collect weather data from sites across the state. These sensors monitor air temperature, relative humidity, soil temperature and moisture, precipitation, solar radiation, and wind speed and direction.

During the past two decades, the United States' most economically damaging drought occurred in 1988 when losses were estimated at more than $40 billion. The nation's current drought affects more than 30 states with an estimated $10 billion in damage. Last year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency designated all 33 counties in New Mexico as drought disaster areas.

According to McWilliams, the Lower Colorado River Basin has experienced some degree of drought in 44 of the last 100 years, while the Rio Grande Basin, which extends through the middle of New Mexico, has seen drought in 42 of those years.

“Precipitation has always been a limited resource in New Mexico, but the long-term, persistent drought is really testing farm and ranch economics,” she said.