It has been more than two years since any part of New Mexico was not rated in one stage of drought or another, but the latest U.S. Drought Monitor released late last week indicates a large area of the southeastern part of the state is now considered drought free.
Thanks to recent rains, most of Chaves County is nearly drought free, including Roswell, a community that has suffered from exceptionally dry conditions over the last two years. While the large drought-free area represents only about 2 percent of the state, drought has loosened its hold on most of the state.
According to the latest report, only 34 percent of the state remains in severe drought and 7.3 percent is listed as under extreme drought, meaning about 41 percent of the state is now considered in a serious drought and about 37 percent listed as moderate.
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An additional 20 percent of the state is listed as abnormally dry, the weakest of drought conditions, and 2 percent of the state is drought-free. The latest drought monitor lists no areas within the state as in exceptional drought, the worst of drought levels.
National Weather Service forecasters in Albuquerque say the latest drought monitor report is encouraging news and represents significant improvement over dry conditions of the last two years, largely as a result of record July rains last month. But they warn that rivers and reservoirs remain at critically low levels and significant rains are still needed to keep drought conditions from slumping back into more severe levels.
In addition good winter snows and early spring rains in 2015 are needed if there is any hope of drought conditions improving further for the 2015 growing season.
However, forecasters admit the latest drought data mark significant improvement over the first half of the year's exceptionally dry start. January statewide precipitation was well below normal to non-existent with only 4 percent of normal they say, the driest January on record going back to 1895, with a statewide average of only 0.03 inches.
February was a slight improvement but still well below normal at only 27 percent normal precipitation. That makes the first two months of 2014 the driest on record, with only 16 percent of normal precipitation, and a statewide average of just 0.20 inches.
For the first three months of 2014, statewide average precipitation was only 34 percent of normal, at 0.67 inches. This was 1.32 inches below normal, the 3rd driest on record. April saw a small increase to 53 percent of normal but made statewide precipitation for January through April only 41 percent of normal—the 7th driest four month start to any year on record.
Conditions began improving slightly with good May rains, a real boost to the start of the growing season. June turned drier, however, with a statewide average of 55 percent of normal. That made 2014 about 56 percent of normal precipitation, a statewide deficit of 2.18 inches below normal, and the 13th driest first six months on record.
Finally, the start of a heavy monsoon season brought substantial relief in July, the first month of the year that exceeded the average monthly rate.
New Mexico farmers and ranchers are aware the new report is little indication that the two-year drought has been broken, but most say they will take any good news as a positive development.
Chili pepper growers in the Middle Rio Grande Basin say the timing of rains last month was perfect to bring their crop to harvest, still underway all across south-central and southwestern regions of the state. Pecan growers also benefited from the rains but say August is a critical month for nut-fill, and more rain is needed to help move the crop along.
Alfalfa hay producers around Carlsbad still need beneficial moisture but report they have produced good alfalfa until July rains caused lower quality and lower prices for hay. But demand for good dairy hay in Texas has kept the market strong overall, except for rain-damaged alfalfa last month.