El Niño Storms Drench Rim Country

Reservoirs brim as Verde River, Tonto Creek rise to 13-15 times normal flow for this time of year


It was mostly rain in Payson, but Pine and Strawberry residents woke to up several inches of new snow Monday. Some areas of the Rim Country reported up to six inches and more of new snow from the latest storm. The storm caused a number of accidents and closed Highway 87 between Payson and Pine for several hours Sunday.

It was mostly rain in Payson, but Pine and Strawberry residents woke to up several inches of new snow Monday. Some areas of the Rim Country reported up to six inches and more of new snow from the latest storm. The storm caused a number of accidents and closed Highway 87 between Payson and Pine for several hours Sunday. |

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Max Foster/Roundup

A storm on Saturday and Sunday left more than five inches of new snow on the Mogollon Rim. Another storm is predicted to come through the Rim Country dropping even more rain and snow into already swollen creeks and the Verde River.

El Niño delivered for Rim Country this year.

Payson got another three inches of snowfall over the weekend, with a good chance of more snow and rain off and on through Thursday, says the National Weather Service in Flagstaff.

Central Arizona has now come out of drought conditions for the first time in years, with a deep snowpack, booming winter recreation sites and brimming reservoirs, says the weather service.

Weather experts attribute the wet winter to the El Niño warming of surface waters in the eastern Pacific, which pumps moisture into the air and pulls storm tracks to the south where they can steer storms into Arizona.

The increase of temperatures globally has also boosted rainfall in many areas but increasing the amount of moisture evaporating from the oceans.

Climate models link global warming to an increase in extreme weather, like Arizona’s violent swing from drought to flood.

The most recent, slow-moving storm dumped about 8 inches on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, 7 inches on Flagstaff, 6 inches on the White Mountains and 4 inches on the Blue Ridge Reservoir.

Forecasters predicted a 70 percent chance of rain tonight in Payson, 10 percent on Wednesday and 20 percent chance on Thursday, before skies clear and highs climb into the 50s.

The latest string of storms has filled the Salt River Project’s reservoirs on the Salt and Verde rivers to the brim. The Salt River at Roosevelt Lake on Monday carried 3,140 cubic feet per second — about triple the normal flow.

The Verde River at Tangle carried a whopping 9,270 cubic feet per second, about 13 times its normal flow.

Tonto Creek at Roosevelt Lake carried 2,460 cubic feet per second, about 15 times its normal flow. The continued rainfall will prolong the isolation of homeowners on the east side of Tonto Creek, who have been all but cut off for weeks.

Roosevelt is now completely full, with another 3,639 acre-feet flowing into the reservoir each day — just a little less water than Payson currently uses in two years.

The depth of the water in Tonto Creek doubled over the weekend, rising from about two feet to about 4 feet on Monday morning — only a fraction of the 18-foot record high water on that creek in 1970, according to the U.S. Weather Service.

The storm delivered a lot more water on the Verde River watershed. That normally quiet stream this weekend rose from 6 feet on Sunday to 14 feet on Monday, about half of the historic high flow of 28 feet in 1993.

SRP water managers have opened up the spillway on Roosevelt Dam, letting water flow on through Phoenix all the way to Painted Rock Reservoir, since the much smaller downstream reservoirs on the Salt River have filled to between 92 and 98 percent of capacity.

Reservoirs on the Verde River have filled to 92 percent of their capacity, despite SRP’s efforts to keep levels in Horseshoe Lake low to avoid drowning out a rich growth of Salt Cedar that have provided nesting sites for the endangered Willow Flycatcher.

The succession of winter storms offered a sharp break from last summer, when the failure of the summer monsoons pushed much of the state back into the drought conditions that have persisted for most of the last decade. At one point during that historic dry period, the 2-million-acre-foot Roosevelt Lake dwindled to about 17 percent of its capacity.

However, the lake has now risen to engulf brush and trees along where Tonto Creek empties into the reservoir. That has stranded many people on the wrong side of the river in Tonto Basin, provided wonderful fishing opportunities for bass lurking in the submerged brush, threatened some giant cottonwoods used for nest sites for bald eagles and underscored Tonto Basin residents’ desperation for a proposed all-weather bridge.

At the start of the official water year in October, virtually all of the state remained in mild to severe drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, maintained by the U.S. Weather Service.

Currently, about a quarter of the state isn’t in drought at all — mostly the central portion of the state, including most of Gila County.

Only about 15 percent of the state remains in still-serious drought conditions, mostly a great expanse of the Navajo reservation in the northeast corner of the state.

In 2009, Payson got less than 9 inches of rainfall — compared to the normal 24 inches.

However, a decently wet December gave way to a record-breaking January, as the surface layers of the eastern Pacific continued to warm until they produced one of the strongest El Niño events in years.

The January storms set records, with up to 92 inches of snowfall at the Snowbowl in Flagstaff, 96 inches at the Sunrise in the White Mountains, 41 inches in Tonto Village, 33 inches in Pine and 12 inches in Payson.

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