The Heat Is Online

Driest Winter on Record Parches Southwestern US

Drought grips Southwest, March 28, 2002

Visions of the Southwest often conjure up thoughts of rugged rocks and cacti, so it could be hard to envision the region suffering from drought. Yet, that's just what is happening, following a winter that delivered much less snow and rain than usual.

"This has been the driest winter on record. It's been the driest September 1 to March 1 on record," remarked Mark Stubblefield, a general forecaster at the Flagstaff, Ariz., National Weather Service forecast office.

"I've never seen it this low before," he added.

Several Arizona and southwestern New Mexico basins received less than 30 percent of normal precipitation from September, 2001, to late March, 2002, according to the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC). That's contributed to severe and moderate drought conditions across both states.

But, part of Arizona comprises the Desert Southwest. Still, says Stubblefield, it's possible for the desert to suffer a drought.

"Drought is classified by the amount of moisture that is below normal."

And 'normal' snowfall in Flagstaff is 92.1 inches for the period between September 1 and March 31. This year, only 38.9 inches of snow fell during that time, leaving the city about 53 inches under the normal level.

While winter is the region's dry month, the below-average rain and snowfall have left the area in short supply of water.

The level of Lake Mary, which serves as one water source for Flagstaff residents, is almost too low for utilities to tap it for drinking, cooking, gardening and other household activities. If the lake drops another foot or more, then water pipes will have to turn to wells, which also are below their average level.

In addition, low precipitation has raised the fire threat in the region. A week ago, one blaze charred homes in Alto, N.M., and two weeks before that, a separate wildfire raced through the Huachuca Mountains. The intense, early activity has fire officials are preparing for a long, busy season, thanks to dry vegetation and soil -- and a spring outlook that holds little hope for drenching rains.

Part of a bigger picture

While dry soil, parched vegetation and low water supplies are beginning to bear down on the Southwest, the effects of drought are already felt on the other side of the country. Water use restrictions are in place in New Jersey, and officials in New York, Massachusetts and other Northeast states are eyeing water levels.

At the end of February, severe drought affected about 21 percent of the Lower 48, according to the NCDC. If that number seems high, then compare it to August 2000, the most recent peak of drought conditions. At that time, 33 percent of the nation was in the midst of severe drought.

Weather officials say, generally speaking, the last two decades were characterized by prolonged periods of wetness with short periods of extensive drought. When the devastating Dust Bowl of the 1930s occurred, just the opposite was happening. The nation underwent extensive periods of drought with little wetness.