Hoped-For Rim Country Monsoons Prove All Show, No Go

Photo by Pete Aleshire. |

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Rim Country’s yearned-for monsoons mostly fizzled this week, with near-record heat and dryness setting in once more for the weekend, according to U.S. Weather Service forecasts.

Payson has received about one-quarter its normal rainfall since January and the entire Salt and Verde River watersheds have received about half their normal rainfall, making it the 16th driest runoff season in the 114-year-old historical record, according to the Salt River Project.

Tonto Creek has dried up well before it can reach Roosevelt Lake and both the Verde and Salt rivers have dwindled to less than half their normal flow.

Nonetheless, the 100 firefighters still working on the 12,000-acre Poco Fire near Young reported 80 percent containment of the fire, which has so far cost $9 million to fight.

Monsoon clouds built up over Rim Country on Tuesday and Wednesday, but even Flagstaff and the White Mountains got only a trace of rain, said Mark Stubblefield, a U.S. Weather Service meteorologist based in Flagstaff.

Forecasters predict hot, clear Rim Country days with highs in the mid 90s through the weekend. However, the chance of rain builds up again early next week, perhaps extending into July 4, when historically the monsoon season often starts.

Stubblefield held out the faint hope of an earlier-than-normal monsoon season, citing one study that showed the lack of a snowpack in the Rocky Mountains could translate into an early monsoon season in Rim Country.

Stubblefield said none of the weather service’s prediction models have so far offered any clue as to whether Rim Country can expect a normal monsoon season once it gets under way.

However, a Salt River Project release said sea surface temperatures have started to warm in the Eastern Pacific, hopefully creating the El Niño conditions associated with heavier than normal winter rain in Arizona. For the past two winters, a cold-water La Niña pattern has stunted winter storm patterns.

But many Rim Country residents fear we’ll be broke or burned to a crisp by winter if the monsoons don’t gust to the rescue soon.

The onset of the monsoons will likely determine the success of the summer tourism season and whether the region averts the kind of wildfire catastrophe that has engulfed Colorado, where several wildfires have consumed more than 250 homes and forced the evacuation of more than 30,000 people.

Meanwhile, the largest wildfire in New Mexico history continues to burn in the Gila Wilderness, close to the Arizona border.

Typically, Payson gets 7 to 8 inches of rainfall during the July and August monsoon season. By contrast, Payson has received about 2.4 inches of rain since March — compared to the 9 inches it would have had by now in a normal year.

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The Forest Service has vowed to keep closures in effect until the region gets a substantial amount of monsoon rain.

Salt River Project reports that Roosevelt Lake has dwindled to 57 percent of normal, compared to 83 percent at this same time last year — after another bad year for runoff in 2011. Normally, the Salt and Verde watersheds produce runoff of about 534,000 acre-feet. This year, they have produced 193,000 and last year 224,000, according to SRP records.

The whole region continues to live off the water produced by several major winter storms in 2010, which filled Roosevelt Lake to near-record levels — briefly interrupting an almost unrelenting, decade-long drought.

Despite the steady drop in levels at Roosevelt Lake, SRP’s reservoirs on the Salt and Verde still hold 1.4 million acre-feet of water — nearly three years worth of normal runoff.

Most of the Tonto National Forest remains closed due to the extreme fire danger, including Fossil Creek.

Rangers closed the few campgrounds left open below the Rim this week as a result of bear attacks near Christopher Creek.

Up on the Rim, hiking trails, lakes and campsites in the Coconino and Apache-Sitgreaves Forests for the most part remain open, but all have strict fire restrictions that confine campfires, smoking and many other activities to certain developed campsites.

The Forest Service has vowed to keep those closures in effect until the region gets a substantial amount of monsoon rain.

Meanwhile, local officials are praying that the closures will keep a new wildfire from starting in Rim Country, after they battled the 12,000-acre Poco Fire near Young and the 16,000-acre Sunflower Fire to a standstill.

However, the unstable lead-up to the monsoons also poses a danger, since the season often starts with days or weeks of blustery monsoon storms that deliver lots of lightning, but little rain.

The Forest Service spends about $1.5 billion annually to fight wildfires, but its resources are stretched dangerously thin, leaving only a limited number of crews and air tankers to respond to a new fire in Arizona.

Even when the monsoons do start, anxious residents will face another threat — mudslides rushing out of the scarred areas that have burned in the past two years.

The Forest Service has issued a closure affecting Sycamore Creek, warning that even 15 minutes of moderate rainfall in the recently burned area could result in flood conditions. The weather service warning concluded that water and debris could rush down Sycamore Creek for as much as 20 miles below the burned area, with the danger of flooding persisting for several hours after the rainfall stops.

Intense fires not only destroy the vegetation that normally holds back runoff, but can fuse the soil to make it nearly as waterproof as concrete — dramatically increasing runoff.

The flood warnings included areas down slope from the Gladiator Fire near Crown King, the Schultz Fire near Flagstaff, the Wallow Fire in the White Mountains and the Locust Fire near Whiteriver.

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