As the 2015 growing season quickly approaches, farmers and ranchers across the West and Southwest are once again concerned over the prospect of lingering drought conditions that could bring a new year of mounting challenges to agricultural operations.
While beneficial rains in many areas across the region last fall have given hope of a better start in 2015, so far winter snows have failed to deliver on any promise for improved water conditions.
The first USDA forecast of the mid-winter season, however, provides a glimmer of hope that portions of the region may see some improvement in drought conditions in the new year for many farmers, while others, especially in the Southwest, may be facing the potential of another dry year.
USDA's National Water and Climate Center (NWCC) released their early 2015 forecast Jan. 15 that calls for a normal water supply prediction for much of the West, while the Southwest, Sierra Nevada region and Pacific Northwest are beginning the year drier than normal. California, Arizona and New Mexico as well as parts of Colorado, Utah and Nevada are experiencing prolonged drought, focusing attention again on winter snowfall.
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"Right now, snowpack and streamflow forecasts look pretty close to normal for much of the West," NWCC hydrologist Cara McCarthy reported last week. "A couple of major regional exceptions are the Southwest and California, which are unusually dry, once again."
Forecasters say this early forecast could quickly change based on two major developments, specifically, if snow accumulations improve across the mountainous West and Southwest in the remainder of the winter season and if prospects for a strengthening of El Niño conditions improve in the weeks ahead.
Climate forecasters report snow accumulations and the resulting snowmelt in the spring account for most seasonal water supply not only in the West but also across the Southwest. So far, snowfalls this winter have ranged from average to light across the region, and the forecast for heavier snow is uncertain.
Hydrologists say information about snowpack serves as an indicator of water availability in the new year as streamflows across the region consist largely of accumulated mountain snow that melts and flows into streams as temperatures warm in late winter and through the spring and summer.
Climatologists at the National Water and Climate Center use snowfall data to develop their early season predictions using such information as snowpack, air temperature trends, and existing soil moisture to develop water supply forecasts.
Last week forecasters predicted the Missouri, Colorado and Columbia river basins are expected to receive near normal streamflows in the spring based upon current snowpack levels, and while early rains in the fall in the Pacific Northwest were above average overall, snowpack accumulations so far this winter are below normal as a result of warmer temperatures in the region.
"This is just the first forecast of the season and changes are expected," McCarthy said. "El Niño conditions forecast for this year might play a part in coming months."
Improved El Niño conditions could provide more than normal winter precipitation to the Southwest. It could also mean less rainfall and snow in the Pacific Northwest. Already this year improved rainfall across New Mexico and Texas have been credited to a weak El Niño system. McCarthy says those conditions are expected to continue and have the potential of strengthening, which could bring added relief to the Southwest.
The NWCC, part of USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, monitors conditions year-round. USDA says they will continue to issue periodic forecasts at least until June. The water supply forecast is part of several USDA efforts to improve public awareness and mitigate the impacts of climate change, including drought and other extreme weather events.
Through the creation of the National Drought Resilience Partnership, launched as part of the President's Climate Action Plan, federal officials say government agencies are working closely with states, tribes and local governments to develop a coordinated response to the ongoing drought.
Since 1939, USDA has conducted snow surveys and issued regular water supply forecasts. Other resources on drought include the U.S. Drought Monitor. For information on USDA's drought efforts, visit USDA Disaster and Drought Information website, and to learn more about how NRCS is helping private landowners deal with drought, visit the NRCS' drought resources page.