Locals hope for monsoon rain, but drought forecast is unclear

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Although the amount of weather-related data available to forecasters has burgeoned over the past 30 or 40 years, when it comes to making predictions about drought, “there’s no crystal ball,” according to Ken Curtis, an engineer with the Dolores Water Conservancy District.

He made the remarks on July 2 while speaking to about 30 people at a meeting of the Dolores River Dialogue, a diverse grassroots group dedicated to improving environmental conditions along the Lower Dolores while protecting and honoring water rights.

“There is not a lot of lead time” in drought predictions, Curtis said. “The information is still pretty speculative. There is not a lot of hope out there for long-term forecasting. “We crank out the numbers twice as often to get a worse result.”

With that caveat, he said, the chances of substantial moisture coming to the Four Corners this month appear to be about 50- 50.

“We have had moisture east and southeast of us,” he said.

Meteorologists think New Mexico will do well during the summer monsoons, but the Four Corners “is right on the edge of the perceived benefit area” so it’s difficult to say how much rain will come here.

“The monsoons always come and no one ever knows how strong they will be,” Curtis said. “Right now all the long-term forecasting shows equal chances.

“Somebody’s going to get it [the monsoon moisture].”

The Colorado River Basin has been in a dry cycle since 2000, he said. Between then and now, there have been only two high precipitation years. Curtis said there were similar dry cycles in the 1930s and 1950s. In contrast, the region experienced record moisture in the 1980s.

The factors driving those ups and downs are not well understood, Curtis said, but one thing meteorologists and scientists generally agree on is that temperatures will continue to rise slightly because of climate change.

The El Niño outlook is neutral right now and climate models say it will stay neutral into the winter, he said. El Niño is a phenomenon in which ocean currents off the west coast of South America in the Equatorial Pacific become unusually warm, usually resulting in more rainfall in the southern United States. La Niña years are characterized by abnormally cold ocean temperatures and drier conditions in the southern U.S.

Curtis said the local area has been “in sad shape since February” in terms of precipitation. Even if the region receives average moisture next year, this probably would not be sufficient to allow for a managed release (spill) from McPhee Dam next spring, he said, “because you’ve got to fill the buckets [reservoirs] before you start seeing a spill.”

Still, a normal year probably would enable water-users to be restored to their full allocation, he said.

“It’s going to take a couple years [to get in good shape], but an average year would sure put us on the right track.”

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From July 2013.