Severe Drought Still Grips Rim Country

Meteorologists hold out hope for a wet winter as water in Pacific warms

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Arizona has slipped back into “severe” drought — with only the dim hope of a wet “El Niño” winter on the clear, sunny horizon.

Weekend clouds delivered about .15 of an inch, the first rain this month.

As a result, Payson has received just over 10 inches for the year —about half it’s normal rainfall for this time of the year.

Gila County now squats in the middle of an area afflicted by “severe” drought that runs up the middle of the state, from Mexico to Utah. The rest of the state lingers in “moderate” drought conditions.

“We’re definitely still in drought,” said Dan LeBlanc, a meteorologist in the Flagstaff Office of the National Weather Service.

Two, back-to-back normal to wet winters gave regional water planners hope for relief from a severe severe, decade-long drought that turned millions of acres of forest into a tinderbox bristling with dying trees. However, the summer monsoon failed and the fall months that normally deliver several inches of rain have been sunny and warm with scarcely a trace of moisture.

Still, meteorologists hold out hope that the continued warming of the surface of the Pacific Ocean by 1 to 1.5 degree centigrade might yet yield a normal to wet winter.

Strong “El Niño” conditions normally produce wet winters and a healthy snow pack in Rim Country, by putting more moisture into the air over the Pacific and shifting high pressure areas to drag the winter storm track down from Canada toward Arizona.

But the last two “weak to moderate” El Niños — in 2002 and 2006 — instead resulted in below-normal rain and snow in Flagstaff and Payson, said LeBlanc.

“It’s hard to say what’ll happen,” said LeBlanc.

“This is what we know: We have a moderate strength El Niño going on right now and it’s forecast to remain in the moderate category through this winter. But a moderate El Niño is not a guarantee of above-normal precipitation in Northern Arizona.”

Still, the Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center still predicts above-normal winter precipitation in Northern Arizona — perhaps starting sometime in December.

“It’s not going to be before the end of this month that’s for sure,” said LeBlanc. Forecasts call for clear skies all week, with a 10 percent chance of rain this weekend.

In the meantime, the winter storm track has been delivering heavy rain to the Pacific Northwest, which has also been struggling through drought conditions.

“They’re getting plastered up there,” said LeBlanc.

In the meantime, about 15 percent of the U.S. remains in drought conditions, centered in the west — with the worst conditions afflicting Texas.

The return of the drought has affected runoff in the Verde, Tonto Creek and other Rim streams, not to mention water levels in the Salt River Project’s (SRP) chain of lakes on the Salt and Verde rivers.

Roosevelt Lake, the Salt River reservoir that provides much of the water supply for Phoenix, was full to the brim earlier this year, but has now declined to 77 percent of its capacity.

Tonto Creek on Monday was trickling into Roosevelt Lake, with a flow of three cubic feet per second, compared to the normal 17 csf for this time of the year.

The Verde River at Tangle was flowing on Monday at 199 csf, compared to a normal flow of 265. The Salt River’s flow into Roosevelt on Monday stood at 153, compared to the normal 268.

Rim Country remains heavily dependent on rainfall each year, with much less capacity to weather an extended drought than hot, dry Phoenix with its great chain of reservoirs.

Star Valley, Payson and most other Rim Communities draw much of their drinking water from relatively shallow drinking wells, where well levels drop almost immediately in a drought year.

Payson’s water table had dropped several hundred feet before water conservation measures stabilized well levels. The combination of growth and drought in Payson had several years ago resulted in such an alarming drop in water tables that the town imposed the state’s toughest growth restrictions.

Since then, Payson has won rights to some 3,500 feet of water from the Blue Ridge Reservoir.

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