Heavy rains in the Carlsbad area and southeast New Mexico could signal reprieve from drought that imperiled the area in the last year.
But experts warned the area is not out of it yet as the region and entire state struggles to recover from severe impacts to farmers and ranchers and the environment.
Data from the National Weather Service showed the Carlsbad area received about 0.76 inches of rainfall in May as of Thursday, about a quarter of its total rainfall of about 3 inches through the year so far.
Rainfall this year appeared well on pace to overtake 2020’s annual total of 3.65 inches and could match the 10.5 inches of rain that fell in 2019, per Weather Service data.
2020’s rainfall was lowest recorded in Carlsbad since the Weather Service opened its station in the area in 2005. Since then, the area averaged about 13.3 inches per year.
The extremely low rainfall last year left the entire state grappling with a dangerously dry climate experts said could take years to come back from – unless the summer quenches the area with a massive monsoon.
Matthew Johnson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Midland Odessa Office said Carlsbad was down about 0.2 inches from the average for May and that predicted storms over the weekend could move the area out of the severe drought its suffered for more than a year.
“Carlsbad is still in a drought. We’re expecting to get possibly more weekend this weekend,” Johnson said. “Hopefully that puts a good dent in it as well.”
He said the added rain was brought on by a dry line, or border between dry and wet air, shifting west through New Mexico earlier than normal.
Thunderstorms and other precipitative weather events tend to form along dry lines, bringing moisture and rainfall to areas they pass over.
“It’s just the way everything’s been setting up,” Johnson said. “The dry line has been a lot further west that it normally is at this time of year.”
But rainfall isn’t the only factor in escaping drought.
Johnson said it will also depend on how vegetation like grass is affected, if plants will regrow and recover or continue to dwindle.
Less rain in southeast New Mexico meant less grass was able to grow, and their regrowth will be closely monitored to determine levels of drought in the area, he said.
“It’s hard to define. It depends on how vegetation is doing and how everything recovers to normal. A lack of rainfall could produce a lot of grass out there,” Johnson said. “That grass is growing. It’s getting close, but there’s still severe drought out there.”
‘Slight’ drought improvements reported in New Mexico
The U.S. Drought Monitor’s latest data weekly from Tuesday released on Thursday showed some minor improvement in drought throughout New Mexico and even in the high desert of the southeast.
Eddy County, which was previously classified at “exceptional drought,” saw an area in center of the county revert to “extreme drought,” meaning conditions had improved.
Neighboring Lea County had a portion on its southern border revert to “extreme” drought as well.
Other parts of southeast New Mexico like Chaves and Lincoln counties remained in the exceptional class, while Otero County was mostly extreme or exceptional with pockets of “severe” drought – the next-lowest class.
Extreme drought is characterized as having high danger of wildfires, while irrigation allotments decrease, and native vegetation dies out.
Exceptional drought means no surface water is left for agriculture, and major rivers run dry.
The Drought monitor showed about 47 percent of New Mexico was in exceptional drought, while 75 percent was in extreme drought.
That was an improvement from three months ago, records show, when 54 percent of the state was in exceptional drought and 78 percent was extreme.
It will take a strong monsoon, a period in the mid-summer known for heavy, sporadic downpours, to bring southeast New Mexico out of drought, Johnson said, but such a shift was characteristic for the arid region.
“It’s pretty normal for dry climates to go through severe droughts and then bounce out of them with really wet seasons,” he said.
State, local water users struggle to recover losses
Local ranchers and water users in the Carlsbad area hoped that would be the case and they could “bounce out” of the problem sooner than later.
Robert Boatman with the Carlsbad Irrigation District said the recent rains did little to help the District that serves hundreds of agricultural and private water users along the Pecos River in southern Eddy County.
The reservoir at Brantley Lake, he said, was still well below what was needed for a productive irrigation season.
Brantley was forecast late last year to be below a 50,000 acre feet storage benchmark by March, meaning the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer, under a legal settlement, was required to begin augmentation pumping from multiple wells it owns in the area.
But in the months since, Boatman said CID members were still struggling, forced to limit the amount of acreage they could irrigate and ultimately turn a profit on, and reduce cattle that grazes on the land.
He said most of the rain fell downstream of Brantley and did little to offset losses from the drought.
“As far as the river system and lake systems itself, the rain hasn’t helped us at all. The rains have been fairly localized and downstream of Brantley Lake. It needs to fall further north. Those tributaries drain into the river and into the lake,” Boatman said.
“Most of the rain we’ve seen is south of the lake. We appreciate the rain and it’s nice to get it, but it hasn’t had any effect on the CID system. It wasn’t in the right spots.”
Because of the lack of rainfall and struggling flows on the Pecos River which feeds the CID’s reservoir, the District filed a priority call earlier this year, hoping its more senior water rights would be given preference by the state over younger rights holders on the river.
That could limit water use for other co-ops like the Pecos Valley Artesian Conservancy District, which recently entered negotiations with the CID and the State, hoping to prevent any reduction in water use for its members in northern Eddy County and Chaves County.
“CID’s desperation for water has not changed. We’re still working through those processes. We are still in the same situation even after the rain. We’re still in a severe drought,” Boatman said.
“We’ve had meetings with the state engineer. We’re encouraged by those meetings, but we’re still working on solutions.”
If the drought worsens or the hoped-for rain doesn’t fall, Boatman said local agriculture could suffer, presenting a threat to the economics of the area historically defined by the industry.
“The farmers, and that’s a huge economy boost for the area, they’re having to make decisions on how much ground they can farm and irrigate because of the lack of water,” he said. “If they over-commit, their crops will fail. The fact that they’re restricted to how much land they can put in, it affects them economically and our community economically.”
New Mexico’s Office of the State Engineer, working with the Interstate Stream Commission, said it delivered about 14,220 AF of water into Brantley since pumping began in October 2020.
Pumping was expected to continue through 2022 but could be reduced during the upcoming irrigation season to support local water users near the wellfields while still making deliveries downstream to the CID.
To continue that work, the Office of the State Engineer needs a lot more money, about $30 million, and representatives from the state began petitioning federal leaders for relief dollars to offset the costs.
A statement from the office echoed that of the National Weather Services: the only respite would come in the form of a heavy monsoon.
“The state/region needs to have a better than average monsoon season to obtain ‘meaningful improvements,’ said spokesperson Kristin Eckhart on Wednesday. “As of this date, the water year precipitation for the majority of the state is below normal.
“While the recent storms have helped, it’s still very dry over the state.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, firstname.lastname@example.org or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.