Arizona’s long-delayed monsoon finally gusted into Rim Country last week, immediately tamping down the fire danger and blowing open the door to reopening the forest.
The influx of wet, cool air from the Gulf of Mexico and Gulf of California brought thunderous bolts of lightning and moderate rain.
The storms broke a dangerous 100-day rainless period in the Valley, finally cooling a record-breaking string of sweltering days. Rim Country was also parched by a nearly month-long delay in the onset of the summer wet season.
Payson received 3.16 inches of rain in a series of storms last week according to weather.com. High temperatures fell from the mid 90s to the mid 80s as the daily massing of storm clouds shaded the region.
The monsoon spawned flash flood watches and warnings from Tucson all the way to Wickenburg, reaching as far west as Gila Bend and as far east as Globe and on up into Show Low. Payson was spared the brunt of the heavy winds and localized flooding.
Payson’s had a dangerously dry year so far. Since January we’ve had 9.71 inches of rain, according to weather records from a combination of Bruce Rasch’s astro50.com/paysonweather and the weather.com websites. Normally, by now we would have had 10.40 inches.
January brought just 0.36 of an inch, a portent of things to come. February raised our hopes with 1.9 inches. Followed by 4 inches in March. Then it all dried up. We got half an inch in April, a tenth of an inch in May, almost nothing in June, and a bone dry first couple of weeks in July.
Normally, Payson gets about 2.5 inches in January, 2.4 inches in February, 2.2 inches in March, 1 inch in April, 0.5 inches in May, 0.3 inches in June and 2.5 inches in July.
Overall, Arizona gets about half its annual rainfall during July and August, thanks to the monsoon pattern — especially in the desert regions. Fluctuations in sea-surface temperatures in the Pacific generally drive the monsoon, with El Niño sea-surface warming usually spawning a more vigorous monsoon.
However, computer climate models predict the gradual heating of the atmosphere has already caused the monsoon to come later in the year and grow more erratic — with both more dry years and more violent storms. The delay in the onset of the monsoon will extend the state’s already deadly fire season.
Last week’s storms finally lowered the extreme fire danger. The U.S. Forest Service and its firefighting partners continue to work the perimeter of a dozen fires statewide, but the high humidity and rain that accompanied the monsoon storms tamed existing fires statewide.
This season the giant Bush Fire forced the evacuation of the Tonto Basin and threatened Payson. The much smaller Polles Fire for a time threatened to force the evacuation of Pine.
The size and intensity of wildfires in Rim Country has increased dramatically in the past 20 or 30 years.
As of this writing, the Tonto Forest had still not reopened its lands, which it closed to the public a month ago in the face of extreme fire danger. The closures dealt a blow to Rim Country businesses hoping the summer influx of visitors would help them recover from the two-month COVID-19 shutdowns.
However, the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests atop the Rim lifted its restrictions on campfires. The Apache-Sitgreaves never closed its lands, but imposed fire restrictions.
Fortunately, last year’s nearly normal winter refilled the state’s reservoirs. As of last week, Roosevelt Lake remained about 93% full, despite three bone dry months and rising water demands in the Valley. The Verde River reservoirs, however, have declined to only 64% full — mostly because SRP emptied Horseshoe Lake in its attempt to manage the system to benefit wildlife.
Overall, the system of reservoirs on the Salt and Verde rivers remain 90% full, compared to 74% at this time last year.
Despite last week’s splatter of storms, the rivers draining Rim Country remain far below normal.
The Salt River had just 27% of its normal flow, the Verde River about 55% and Tonto Creek was bone dry.
The C.C. Cragin Reservoir has dwindled to 73% full, with Payson taking its full water allotment from the 15,000-acre-foot reservoir atop the Mogollon Rim. The Salt River Project continues to release about 12 cubic feet per second from the reservoir into the East Verde River.
Despite the onset of the monsoon, almost all of Arizona has returned to either “abnormally dry” or “moderate” drought. New Mexico, Utah, Nevada and northern California are in the same state. Northern New Mexico and southern Colorado have returned to “extreme drought,” according to the Weather Service’s Drought Monitor.