Even if El Niño materializes and brings a wet winter to the West, it likely will not be enough to bring the Four Corners out of an exceptional drought, weather forecasters said this week.
It would take precipitation 167 percent above normal to bring the area out of drought status, said Royce Fontenot, senior service hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque.
“It’s just embedded,” he said.
Across the nation, the Four Corners is at the “epicenter” of drought and the only area in exceptional drought status. It’s a designation given to areas experiencing exceptional and widespread crop and pasture losses and water shortages.
There is an 80 percent chance a weak El Niño will form, which could bring some relief in the form of above-average precipitation, said Mike Halpert, deputy director of National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center.
While temperatures in the Pacific Ocean are warm and right for El Niño, the atmospheric changes associated with it have not started, he said.
El Niño used to be associated with colder winters, but that is not the case anymore, and this season, it is expected to bring warmer-than-average temperatures, Halpert said.
“The climate, in just a general sense, has gotten warmer over time,” he said.
A wet winter is needed after a dry winter in 2017-18, and the monsoons failed to arrive this summer, Fontenot said.
In La Plata County, reservoir levels started at healthy levels earlier this year but were radically reduced over the summer, leaving far less water to carry over if the region sees another dry winter, said Bruce Whitehead, executive director of the Southwestern Water Conservation District.
“We definitely don’t want to see another year like last year or a year like 2002,” Whitehead said.
Precipitation this fall helped a little; snowpack for the San Juan, Dolores, Animas and San Miguel river basins was at 70 percent of the median level Thursday, according to the Natural Resource Conservation Service.
However, November is typically a fairly dry time for the region, and heavy snow often arrives late in the season, changing the outlook for water across the region completely, Whitehead said.
While it is too early to know what the summer may hold, the city of Durango and the town of Bayfield are putting plans in place in case drought conditions persist.
Durango recently received a $30,000 grant to hire consultants to guide a drought-planning process that will start Wednesday, said Jarrod Biggs, assistant utilities director. The process to write a drought plan will include representatives from major water users, such as the city’s Parks and Recreation Department and Fort Lewis College.
“In the event we have a drier future, it will be the playbook,” he said.
The city staved off water restrictions this summer by working with its largest water users on conservation, Biggs said.
Bayfield imposed outdoor water restrictions and dipped into some of its water storage in Vallecito Reservoir for a few days during the summer, said Town Manager Chris LeMay.
The town is prepared to impose stricter outdoor watering limits or prohibit outdoor irrigation entirely if conditions require, he said.
The town has filed a water court case to convert some of its irrigation water rights to municipal and industrial water rights, but it is unknown when the case will be decided, he said.
As for public lands, forests need snow this winter to help replenish soil moisture and streams that ran dry, said Joni Vanderbilt, San Juan National Forest spokeswoman and hydrologist.
“We need at the very minimum a normal snowpack,” she said.
Across the forest this summer, grasses and other needed forage didn’t grow as tall as usual, limiting food available for livestock. Those permitted to graze livestock on the forest had to move through pastures faster, and some had to haul in drinking water for animals for the first time, she said.
The drought also likely forced wildlife into smaller ranges to stay close to reliable water sources, she said.
El Niños can be good for the forest by bringing in snowpack that lasts longer and prevents the forests from drying out as much during June, typically a drier time for the region, she said.