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Though drenched in rain, El Paso-area drought remains

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The record rainfall this week in El Paso broke several weeks of triple-digit high temperatures, and doubled the area’s total in 24 hours, causing localized flash flooding in Far West Texas and Southern New Mexico

While farmers and landowners celebrated what the rain means for agriculture and wildlife, festivities will be short lived.

The rainfall this week isn’t enough to refill the drying Rio Grande or arid landscape, experts said. It was only enough to dent the fire danger, and in the short-term wash away crops and threaten lives in the region.

Not a typical storm

Jason Grzywacz, a meteorologist at National Weather Service El Paso, said the weather is not part of the regular summer monsoon season that hits the borderlands each year. Instead, Grzywacz said this storm was like a winter storm which drops more rainfall over time.

Grzywacz said the area’s storms doubled the amount of precipitation between Sunday to Monday compared to the last six months in El Paso. Over the past three days, much of the metro area received between 1.75 to 4.69 inches — which accounts for almost half of the yearly average of nine inches El Paso usually sees in a year.

Rain chances continue through the weekend, according to meteorologist Dave Hefner, with 40% to 50% chances of spotty storms though next Wednesday. While less consistent, they still have the power to cause localized flooding.

“If you just have the luck of being under a thunderstorm, you could see an inch or two of rain,” Hefner said.

Flash flooding and ponding on roads is a hazard for drivers during downpours. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)

The good, the bad and the drought

The rains caused El Paso to drop from the driest county in Texas to third driest, according to the Keetch-Byram Drought Index, which measures moisture and temperatures to determine forest fire potential. The fire danger in the area still remains high. 

Luke Kanclerz, a fire analyst who predicts wildfire conditions for the Texas A&M Forest Service, said the past two years of extreme and exceptional drought left the land parched. Though the rain’s full impact on the landscape won’t be measured until the storm passes, the weather is a respite and a boon, he said.

Recent rainfall immediately “greens the grasses,” and makes them and other woodland fuels more fire-resistant, he said. The cooler weather and wet area also lowers the chances of lightning-caused fires. 

Kanclerz urged people to continue to pay attention to the burn ban currently in place in El Paso County, particularly heading into Fourth of July weekend.

“The fire environment is very complex,” Kanclerz said. “It could only take a matter of hours or days for those grasses to dry, and to have fires and the potential for fires to ignite. So even though we’re getting the rainfall now, we definitely encourage folks to exercise caution.”

The short-term flooding threatens people in the city and countryside, and concerns about washed-out roads and flash floods remain. 

Martin Noriega, the chief operations officer at El Paso Water, manages stormwater utility for the El Paso municipal area. He said a crew of up to 35 employees have worked since Sunday night’s deluge started, clearing out dirt and debris in the storm sewer system pushed in by the surge of water. 

El Paso’s stormwater system received an overhaul after heavy rains dumped about 30 inches of water over a few days in 2006. A lack of maintenance to stormwater infrastructure contributed to the severe flooding that caused $200 million in damages to homes and businesses. 

The improvements now mean the system is equipped with pumps, ponds and over 200 miles of drains and channels.

Water from the recent rains pools in an alleyway in downtown El Paso. Rain is expected in El Paso intermittently over the next week. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)

Noriega said El Paso faces different flooding challenges than other cities because of its diverse geography, including the Rio Grande, water runoff from the mountains and the flat areas in the eastern part of the city. 

Gary Esslinger, who manages the Elephant Butte Irrigation District for Southern New Mexico, said the rain has been a blessing in a year where the water in the river is scarce.

“But we don’t want downpours or two and three inch thunderstorms that can produce these flash floods, those are a concern of ours,” he said. 

Esslinger said the district is watching the river, and diverting river water upstream, depending on information from a series of gauges measuring the amount dumped into the river in drains and arroyos. This has helped manage small floods just upstream of El Paso in Canutillo.

Despite the heavy rain, the longer-term Rio Grande water woes remain unresolved.

Water in the Rio Grande is shared between Texas and New Mexico as part of a national compact. The City of El Paso depends on that water which goes into homes as drinking water. Much of Texas’ Elephant Butte water is also used to irrigate crops like pecans, chile and cotton.

Despite the predicted rainfall, Elephant Butte Reservoir is still expected to drop from its current capacity (about 8%) to as low as 1% later this summer, according to the Bureau of Reclamation estimates. At its highest, the reservoir held only 11% of its capacity this year, and is drained to provide irrigation and Texas’ water. 

While some see the issue as a management problem, others say declining reservoirs is the new normal — even with the recent heavy rains. 

John Fleck, the director of water resources at the University of New Mexico, said compared to decades past, the lack of water in the river isn’t a management issue. 

“For everyone on the river, we face a reckoning with the reality that we will have — probably forever — less water to use,” he said.

The rain fails to replenish a river losing water because of declining snowpacks evaporating in a warming climate and stress on the system because of aridification, Fleck said. 

Much of El Paso’s water originates from the snows in Colorado and northern New Mexico, which is declining in the hotter and drier normal the Southwest is experiencing due to climate change. 

“There is no rain that could happen at this time of year that would really, seriously bail us out of the really deep and underlying problems,” Fleck said. “Rain can help at the margins, it helps at the edge. But it really doesn’t change the fact that we’ve got the drying river.” 

Fleck said the focus on management distracts from the true issue: that users upstream and downstream will have to change their ways of life. 

“I’m really worried about our inability to discuss the reality of life with what less water and climate change is going to look like,” he said. “That scares me.”

Cover photo: A man crosses Kansas Street in Downtown El Paso during a break in the rain June 28. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)

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Danielle Prokop

Danielle Prokop is a climate change and environment reporter with El Paso Matters. She’s covered climate, local government and community at the Scottsbluff Star-Herald in Nebraska and the Santa Fe New Mexican. She can be reached at dprokop@elpasomatters.org.

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