Northern New Mexico two weeks ago was placed in the extreme drought category with poor predictions of any change in that status. The National Weather Service predicts a dryer then usual La Niña lasting into the spring and climatologists warn this will only make things worse.
La Niña is the warm, dry stage of the natural annual osculation of weather patterns and the opposite of the cool, wet El Niño.
David W. DuBois the New Mexico State Climatologist said, “It doesn’t look good.”
DuBois said that the maps from the Climate Prediction Center of the National Weather Service said they expected La Niña to stick around until spring of next year. La Niña pushing up into Colorado can prevent the jet stream from pushing down, which brings winter weather storms from the north. The Center expected a 60 percent chance of La Niña persisting until spring.
“This is a ‘history affects the future’ in terms of impacts,” Du Bois said. “We’ve had a really dry monsoon (rainy season) and through almost the whole region, soil moisture is really low all across and including the mountain areas, this is kinda our base foundation. It makes it harder for our vegetation, all of the ecosystem, that later in the spring.”
DuBois said a dry soil base means the ground absorbs more of what precipitation does come down before it makes it into rivers and reservoirs.
Currently 39 percent of the U.S. is in a state of drought according to the National Integrated Drought Information System of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.
Charlie Hibner, a rancher in Rio Arriba County and former County committee member for the Farm Service agency said in the short term La Niña has a serious effect ranchers.
“We don’t have a lot of grass growth in the winter,” Hibner said. “It will affect us for the next summer when we’re not going to grow as much the next summer. In the spring we might sell off cattle.”
He said there are programs in place from the Farm Services Agency for ranchers during droughts but they still haven’t been paid out for 2020.
“No one has been yet that I know of,” Hibner said. “Whether we’re being pushed for that or just being slow I don’t really know.”
There have been conflicts between the FSA and ranchers in the County going back to 2017 about proper measurements of crops for insurance and whether or not acequia irrigated lands qualify for drought insurance.
DuBois said that he measures drought based of reservoir capacity and that starting around 1999 the water levels in the reservoirs started to decline.
“I was just at Elephant Butte just like a week ago or so and it was just above 4 percent of capacity, and seeing the bottom of the lake where normally there’s lots of water above us,” DuBois said.
For a closer example, Abiquiú Lake, a reservoir operated by the Army Corps of Engineers, which is currently at 61,233 acre feet compared to its peak of over 400,000 acre feet in the 1980s.
Nabil Shafike the chief of water management for the Corps said the water level of the reservoir is where it is because they import water from the San Jaun and Chama watersheds for usage in Albuquerque, but there’s not a lot of water naturally coming in from Colorado via the Rio Chama.
Austin Coleman the acting project manager at Abiquiú Lake said there had been some problems for boaters citing that the water level was now below where the concrete pier reached, and the changing water level made navigating hazards harder.
“There tend to be some benefits for shoreline use because we have bigger beaches,” Coleman said.
There have also been large algae blooms over the last two years, which are only a danger to dogs and small children because ingesting them can be hazardous, he said.
Research into what is causing the blooms is ongoing but Coleman said a driving factor could be lower water levels meaning that nutrients are in a more compact area and warmer temperatures stimulating growth.
Shafike said while the extra dry heat from La Niña would increase the amount of evaporation from the lake, the lake level was already low enough that he didn’t expect it to cause much water to leave.
Human activity has a part to blame in the oncommig drought according to DuBois.
“We’re changing the composition of the atmosphere compared to what it was before the industrial revolution,” DuBois said. “So it’s our issue and we have a choice to make to change that, but the lifetime of the CO2 and the methane, especially the CO2 it’s long and it’s impacting our weather it’s impacting our economy our agriculture our food supply
DuBois said climate change is a slower thing compared to seasonal weather patterns.
“It increases the odds in terms of weather of making things more extreme,” Du Bois said. “Temperatures are rising and anything that’s related to temperature, you know like evaporation, the phase of the precipitation, like snow vs rain those all depend on the temperature.”
DuBois said he saw climate change also slowly shifting snowmelt timing and elevation of snow levels.
“There’s some critical things in the hydrology of our system and climate change is already making that impact,” DuBois siad.