So maybe not-normal is the new normal.
On Sept. 30, the National Weather Service closed the books on a record-breaking monsoon. In Rim Country, the monsoon set a record with Payson receiving 14.74 inches, 7.65 inches above normal and the wettest on record since they kept records starting in 1940.
Anyone paying attention to the forecast of a La Niña winter and the dry days of fall scheduled a nice weekend hike — and maybe started monitoring the timing of fall colors on the Rim and up into the White Mountains.
This week, it rained toads and rutting elk.
Or something along that line.
Payson got just shy of an inch of rain in a 24-hour period ending Tuesday night. In the White Mountains they got just shy of two inches.
Maybe that doesn’t seem like much compared to the August deluges, which slopped over into September — with some areas getting four times the normal monsoon rain.
But get this: Payson normally gets 1.4 inches for all of October and another 1.6 inches in November, before the real winter storms arrive.
Show Low normally gets about 1.4 inches in October and 1.3 inches in November. So the rain gauge reports for the weekend already exceed the normal monthly average.
Forecasters say that La Niña conditions have formed in the Eastern Pacific, which means the surface waters are colder than normal. This upwelling of cold water driven by variations in the trade winds increases the odds of a dry winter in much of the western U.S. That’s because shifts in sea surface temperatures can push the high-altitude jet stream to the north, chilling Canada, drenching the Pacific Northwest and drying out California and the Southwest.
Of course, the forecasters are covering their tracks these days — with the gradual buildup of heat in the atmosphere making everything harder to predict. The National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA) has warned that the computer models suggest the steady buildup of heat-trapping gases will produce both longer, more severe droughts in the Southwest, but more severe flooding and rainfall when the stars do align.
On the other hand, they also note that long-term climate records show the Southwest’s perfectly capable of producing breathtaking swings in rainfall with no help from humans. Just ask the Sinagua and the Hohokam, whose ancient civilizations more or less collapsed in the wake of a decades-long drought.
The last two years of monsoon roller coaster certainly fit that pattern.
Last year, the monsoon proved a no-show — the driest on record in many areas.
This year, nearly every community in northern Arizona saw above average rainfall. Some areas getting 2-4 times the normal rainfall. Flagstaff got 11 inches, the 14th wettest on record.
Phoenix got four inches — well short of the top 10 list but way more than last year’s half an inch.
The combination of torrential downpours and a growing number of easily eroded burn scars from megafires produced a lethal series of storms — mostly in the lower desert regions.
At least five people died during the monsoon in flood events, including two in Gila Bend, one in the Grand Canyon, one in Cottonwood and another in Pima County.
Moreover, floods inflicted widespread damage — for instance, ripping out a retaining wall protecting the Central Arizona Project Canal, causing at least $7.5 million in damage. The NWS issued a record number of flash flood warnings, including 132 warnings in Flagstaff in July alone, a record one month total for any Weather Service office. Good thing too — floods off recent burns washed away cars and ruined roads.
Throughout the Phoenix area, stations as of mid-September had issued 247 flash flood warnings — compared to a normal, long-term average of 60 for a single season.
Payson and the White Mountains actually fared pretty well. Most areas got two or three times the long-term average monsoon rainfall, but suffered little flood damage.
Even Fossil Creek fared pretty well, despite the runoff from the canyon slopes charred in the Backbone Fire. Mud and silt filled pools, washed away sections of trails and damaged roads — but didn’t bury the iconic creek in mud as some feared. Nonetheless, the damage to trails and roads will likely prompt the Forest Service to close the creek to the public on into the spring.
But the monsoon also proved typically fickle.
Lake Powell and Lake Mead dwindled toward crisis, both a little more than one-third full — more than 100 feet below full pool. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation cut water deliveries to Arizona and warned of severe rationing to come — to the dismay of farmers throughout Arizona.
On the other hand, the monsoon storms added nearly 250,000 acre-feet to the Salt River Project’s reservoirs on the Salt and Verde rivers. The runoff set July and August records stretching back to the 1950s — missing the all-time wettest monsoon mark by just 0.02 of an inch.
The monsoon pulled Arizona out of the severe and exceptional drought conditions that prevailed at the end of our bone-dry spring and winter. At the moment, the lower two-thirds of the state is savoring conditions that rank as somewhere between moderate drought and merely “abnormally dry. Only the northern half of Apache and Gila County still suffer “extreme” drought — mostly on the long-suffering Navajo Reservation. The monsoon also dramatically improved conditions in New Mexico.
The summer rains smothered the fire season in Arizona and New Mexico. Inciweb currently lists only one active fire — the 380-acre Bog Fire in New Mexico, close to the state line near Alpine.
On the other hand, most of the West doesn’t get a summer monsoon. As a result, most of California, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Idaho and Wyoming continue to swelter in extreme to exceptional drought, with a terrible fire season seeming to stretch on forever.
Fortunately, thousands of firefighters have most of the big fires in the West contained, at a cost of billions of dollars to the federal government. Nonetheless, the fire season will likely continue deep into November in much of the West. Firefighters in California dread the Santa Ana winds, which normally rise in October, making it the peak of the fire season there in a normal year. So the predictions of a dry winter could extend the disaster of this year’s fire season.