While much of the Southwest remains under various degrees of drought, climate specialists agree beneficial rain events in recent months have gone a long way in improving conditions in many areas.
Heavy rains benefited farmers in the Texas Coastal Bend and in Deep South Texas over the summer and fall months, and showers have improved dry conditions across most of Texas and in large parts of New Mexico.
But rain showers that helped raise soil moisture considerably in areas that received heavy downpours since mid-summer provided little help for lake and reservoir levels in most of the region. Meteorologist Dale Nelson in Corpus Christi says the dry soils soaked up most of the rains and left little runoff to raise lake levels.
The exception to the rule, however, is eastern New Mexico where many lake and reservoir levels have risen and in some cases brought levels near capacity.
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Summer’s improved rainfall totals left Sumner Lake’s volume at 37,109 acre feet, only 391 acre feet below capacity. The lake is located south of Santa Rosa and west of Clovis, New Mexico. Lake elevation stands at nearly 1,430 feet above sea level, the highest in over a decade. The lake is expected to keep its volume within 1 percent of capacity this year according to Carlsbad Irrigation District's Mike Cantrell.
Sumner Lake’s volume is currently at about 37,100 acre feet, only 390 acre feet below capacity. If snowfall is above average this winter as predicted, the reservoir could stay at higher-than-normal levels throughout next year.
Cantrell says it wasn't just this summer and fall's heavy rains that helped the lake to rise out of drought conditions. It started in the fall of 2013 when massive floodwaters rushed into the lake, significantly raising lake levels.
Prior to last year's flood and this year’s heavy rains, from 2010 to 2012 the lake had shrunk as low as 1,800 acre feet and looked more like a series of pools instead of a lake.
Other lakes benefited from good rains
North of Sumner Lake and not far from Tucumcari, New Mexico, Conchas Lake in San Miguel County also benefited from heavy rains over the last two years. Conchas Lake provides irrigation water to the Arch Hurley Conservancy District in Quay County. Officials there say they have been able to provide more water to farmers this year than they have "for many years running."
The water elevation at Conchas is currently just over 4,177 feet above sea level. The lake holds an estimated 147,342 acre feet, but the lake level is at less than half of its maximum capacity. Even so, officials say that represents a major improvement over recent years. In fact, it has been 10 years since Conchas Lake could boast levels this high.
Franklin McCasland, manager of the Arch Hurley Conservancy District, says water from Conchas Lake provides irrigation for about 42,000 acres of farm and ranch land in Quay County. After three years of having no water available to its customers, McCasland says the district offered up about 15 inches of irrigation water per customer this year.
Another area lake benefiting from substantial rain this year is Ute Lake northeast of Tucumcari. A U.S. Geological Survey indicates the lake is nearly 3,780 feet above sea level currently with a volume of 149,000 acre feet. The lake is within 8 feet of its maximum level of just under 3,788 feet.
While eastern New Mexico will require more rain for spring planting and especially in the warmer and drier summer months, local water officials say they at least have adequate supplies to get the new planting season off to a good start.
With a heavy snowpack predicted this winter, it's possible the area lakes could benefit even further in the months ahead.