Heading into colder months, available moisture is considered important in order for soil moisture to remain optimum for the next planting season. While September rains helped much of the Southwest, October moisture was down in parts of the Southwest, especially in New Mexico, and climate specialists expect dry conditions in November could increase those problems heading into winter.
The latest U.S. Drought Monitor for Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico, released Nov. 8, shows only 4 percent of New Mexico in drought this week. Oklahoma stands at about 6 percent in severe drought (lower Southeastern part of the state), 11 percent experiencing moderate drought conditions and 15 percent abnormally dry. As of early November, Texas is about 5 percent in severe or moderate drought and 13 percent abnormally dry.
The Drought Monitoring Workgroup, made up of members of the National Weather Service and representatives of state and federal agencies, determines the extent and severity of drought by considering factors such as precipitation totals and moisture content in the soil.
While drought conditions are considered minimum, at a New Mexico Drought Monitoring Workgroup meeting last week, climate and weather officials said dry conditions are expected to increase across the state after the latest data has been analyzed, thanks to a particularly dry October.
"September ended up being a pretty normal month for the state when you add all (the precipitation) up," said Royce Fontenot, senior hydrologist in the Albuquerque office of the National Weather Service. "But October has been extremely dry to date. We are drying out. Topsoil moisture is spiraling down."
That's not good news for agricultural producers across the state. Farmers and ranchers in New Mexico depend upon good winter soil conditions to support range, pasture and crop soil moisture before the spring growing season arrives. Following several years of seriously dry conditions across the Southwest, including historical drought periods over the last decade, officials at the meeting said soil moisture remains marginal in spite of good rains over the last two years.
Some of these same conditions are identical in Texas and Oklahoma, each having suffered multiple years of serious drought followed by the last two years of near average rainfall. Without a wet winter season this year, however, dry conditions could worsen by the time farmers are ready to put seed into the ground in the spring.
Officials in Albuquerque say while New Mexico is currently 46 percent free of drought, more than half of the state is abnormally dry and almost four percent is suffering moderate drought.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor map last week, drought is restricted to parts of Catron, Cibola, McKinley and San Juan counties in western New Mexico, and to parts of Guadalupe, Quay, De Baca, Curry and Roosevelt counties in east-central New Mexico, where much of the state's peanut crop is grown.
Fontenot said eastern New Mexico has suffered the most in an October that has featured little rain and excessively warm temperatures, 10 to 20 degrees above normal.
"In early October we had decent precipitation in the southwest, but the east has been bone dry," he said.
Dave DuBois, the New Mexico state climatologist, said expansion of abnormally dry or drought conditions is likely, especially in the east-central part of the state. Fontenot agreed more rain is needed this fall to avoid extreme dry conditions in the months ahead.
"Expansion is probably warranted everywhere,” Fontenot said. “It almost looks as if we are heading back into a flash drought [and] a real dry spell."
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Fontenot said that as of now, 2016 is the 35th driest year on record in New Mexico, and at the end of the water year, which just passed, the state was just slightly above normal thanks to substantial snow last December.
While Texas and most of Oklahoma's weather outlook isn’t as bleak as much of the arid Southwest's forecast, climatologists and weather forecasters say both states could suffer more severe drought conditions by spring if fall and winter rains fail to offset a trend of less moisture, like those experienced in New Mexico in recent weeks. That, they agree, could make for a dry start to the new planting season in 2017.