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Drought threatens return in New Mexico after dry stretch

In this 2011 photo, the Rio Grande snakes around sandbars that have built up in the river near Bernalillo, N.M. This week, the National Weather Service and others are holding out hope the El Niño that was predicted to bring a healthy dose of snow and rain will deliver something before fizzling out.

ALBUQUERQUE – Marking an end to a record-setting stretch of warm, dry weather, snow fell around New Mexico on Tuesday but forecasters warned that meaningful moisture has been in short supply and drought is threatening to creep back into the state.

Forecasters with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque met this week with state and federal water managers to discuss the outlook.

Precipitation for January and February is on track to come in below normal and record temperatures last week helped to dry out the state even more.

However, Brian Guyer with the weather service and others are holding out hope the El Niño that was predicted to bring a healthy dose of snow and rain will deliver something before fizzling out.

Where’s El Niño

At the start of winter, there was excitement across New Mexico as forecasters talked about the possibilities of a wet winter thanks to El Niño, a warming trend in the central tropical Pacific that alters weather patterns worldwide.

El Niño often brings more rain to parts of the West, but things seemed to switch off as moisture bypassed parts of California and nearly all of New Mexico.

Forecasters say El Niño is still in play and the outlook for March through May shows favorable conditions for above-average precipitation in New Mexico. After that, El Niño is expected to weaken and possibly give way to its drier counterpart, La Niña.

Record temperatures

T-shirts and shorts were on order as high temperatures shattered records throughout northern and central New Mexico last week.

Albuquerque marked 15 consecutive days of above-average temperatures, while Roswell topped out at 91 on Thursday – the first time that eastern New Mexico community had seen temperatures that warm so early in the year.

Drying out

New Mexico received about a half-inch of precipitation for all of January and this month is faring no better. In the first three weeks of February, many areas received only a fraction of their normal snow and rainfall.

Snowpack in the mountains, which New Mexico’s river systems depend on, has taken a hit from the lack of continued moisture and the warm weather.

Soil moisture readings also indicate things are dry, and conversations have shifted from the ski season to curbing fast-moving grass fires and dust storms.

Wet spring?

“We’ll keep our fingers crossed,” Guyer said.

The latest predictions show favorable chances for above-average precipitation for most of the Southwest, including all of New Mexico.

Overall, New Mexico’s current drought picture is a vast improvement over a few years ago when conditions reached exceptional proportions. In fact, the state is in the black by about 5 inches when it comes to precipitation over the last two years.

However, the recent dry spell is forcing officials to re-evaluate the drought map. It soon will be updated to show abnormally dry conditions cropping up in the southwest and along the Rio Grande Valley.

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