Arizona's drought conditions worsening
PRESCOTT – It’s not as bad as it was a year ago, but Arizona’s drought conditions grew over the first half of 2016.
“Between the first of the year and now, we are moving in the wrong direction,” Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Thomas Buschatzke said.
According the latest figures from the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, nearly 60 percent of Arizona is in moderate to severe drought, with the worst conditions near Yuma.
And virtually the entire state is experiencing drought or abnormally dry conditions – the only exception is a pocket at the Utah border near Colorado City.
Compare that to where the state was at the end of January: Less than 16 percent of the state was experiencing moderate drought, and nearly 43 percent had improved to the point of not having a drought classification.
In Yavapai County, abnormally dry conditions persisted over the winter. In March, drought monitoring officials reclassified the southern half of the county as having moderate drought conditions.
Not only have drought conditions returned to more areas of the state in recent months, but in May the National Drought Mitigation Center bumped the state back to “long-term” drought impacts – typically longer than six months with impacts on ecology and hydrology.
The backslide caught the attention of the Governor’s Drought Interagency Coordinating Group at its May 17 meeting.
“We made a recommendation to continue the existing drought declaration,” Buschatzke said.
He was quick to note the state is still in a better position than it was a year ago, when more than 80 percent of the state was in moderate to severe drought.
Above average rainfall last spring and summer was reversing the multi-year trend, and last fall, weather forecasters and drought monitoring officials had expected a wetter-than-normal winter because of a strong El Nino weather pattern in the Pacific Ocean.
National Weather Service Forecaster Darren McCollum said the predictions were right, with one exception: The wet weather patterns bypassed the Southwest.
The winter was good for other parts of the West, including Northern California and the Pacific Northwest, but Arizona and Southern California didn’t get the expected precipitation.
Buschatzke said that’s contributed to continued low flows in the Verde and Salt river basins, and with the current weather outlook, it’s not expected to improve.
“As far as we can see, on our forecast, it looks like it segued into a typical June,” McCollum said.
That means warm, dry weather for the next few weeks.
“The fire threat is going to start going up,” he said.
While state and federal land agencies haven’t yet issued fire restrictions for any areas outside Phoenix, at least 10 wildfires started across the state in the past week.
“We have a lot of very high risk,” Buschatzke said.