Late July rains are providing encouragement for New Mexico farmers and ranchers suffering from a fourth consecutive year of severe drought.
Heavy rains belted parts of central and eastern New Mexico beginning last weekend causing flooding in parts of Albuquerque and record rainfall amounts in Raton and Mosquero, both in the northeastern quadrant of the state, where nearly 5 inches of rain fell in one day.
National Weather Service forecasters say while recent showers are part of the state's annual summer monsoon season, showers earlier this week were intensified by a front moving southwest across the state.
National Weather Service senior forecaster Clay Anderson in Albuquerque said isolated parts of the state may have received up to six inches of rain in recent days and predicts heavy rains will return by late Thursday and into Friday.
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Parts of New Mexico remained under a flash flood warning Tuesday, especially for areas recently hit by wildfires. Officials say the fire-scarred landscape in higher elevations will force heavy runoffs to lower elevations with the potential for serious flash floods.
With four years of severe drought and only minimal irrigation allotments, New Mexico farmers and ranchers have lost millions in crop production. The drought also forced ranchers to cull cattle herds because of water, forage and feed shortage, another devastating blow to the state's agricultural economy.
About the same time last year, July rains extended into the early fall and provided just enough relief before harvest to salvage many crops. Those benefiting the most were chili pepper producers in the south central part of the state and pecan producers south of Elephant Butte reservoir near Las Cruces.
While chili pepper production suffered from a severe shortage of irrigation water from the reservoir, farmers were able to pump enough groundwater to sustain the crop until rains came. The same situation has been setting up again this year as irrigation allotments have been critically short. While limited groundwater resources have been credited with saving the crop in recent times, producers say the high-saline groundwater has reduced crop yields and quality.
Recent rains provide a glimmer of hope that a wet late season may once again "save the day" for the state's chili pepper industry.
In spite of the rain, however, industry experts say even with a good harvest this fall, a shortage of farm labor may once again be a bigger problem. But without the rain, growers are quick to point out there may not be much of a crop left to harvest.
Rainfall amounts varied greatly earlier this week with most of the heavier moisture falling in central and eastern parts of the state. By Tuesday evening Santa Fe had recorded over 2 inches of rain. Parts of Albuquerque received as much as 3 to4 inches in isolated spots.
Since rainfall amounts varied greatly and were sporadic, forecasters little relief to the state's overtaxed reservoir system. Thirsty soils will soak up most of the rain they say leaving little to help supplement reservoir intakes, and warn elevated stream and river levels will quickly recede.
The National Weather Service says New Mexico should see a break from heavy storms mid-week following a string of storms and heavy rainfall in recent days. But forecasters say more storms should hit the state again Thursday and could last throughout the weekend.
Officials say so far the rain has made July one of the wettest on record for parts of New Mexico. Albuquerque International Airport has already reported 3.5 inches for the month, the fifth wettest July on record at that location, and more rains were expected early Wednesday before a break in the weather Thursday night.