An exceptionally rainy October is quenching some of the borderland’s thirst, but even as a few storms remain on the horizon, the recent rains have barely put a dent into long-term drought conditions.
El Paso has received 1.81 inches of rain since the start of the month, more than an inch and a half greater than the October rainfall average (0.33 inches inches), according to data from the National Weather Service El Paso regional office.
The unusual spate of rains – which are not related to the annual monsoon patterns seen from June through September – helped make up for the dry spell in mid-July, a key month for moisture. For the year, El Paso has received more than eight inches, an inch greater than average.
The Paso del Norte region is expected to dry out this week, but has chances for scattered storms again from Oct. 22 through Oct. 24, according to meteorologist Hector Crespo.
“Very strangely, we have another system coming in this weekend, bringing more rain chances again, but not as significant as this past weekend,” Crespo said.
Though the rainfall has improved the short-term drought conditions in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado and Far West Texas, plentiful summer and fall rains are no simple fix for the drought in water supplies across the Southwest United States.
In the short term, rains stabilize the soils and nourish plants, which improves river health. In the long-term, however, this amount of rain can’t patch up the harm to the landscape caused by two decades of hotter, drier and windier conditions. El Paso and much of the Southwest lose out on water from a combination of this thirsty environment and human usage of river water for agricultural irrigation and aquifer pumping.
“The monsoon helps kicks the can down the road a little bit, but it doesn’t really move the needle for our long-term hydrologic concerns”, said John Meyer, Utah assistant state climatologist.
Long-range forecasts anticipate a smaller snowpack this winter – which plays a greater role in feeding rivers and groundwater than rainfall. Snow water accounts for about 70% of water in the Rio Grande, which, when available, provides up to 40% of the drinking water for city of El Paso residents.
Any meaningful drought improvements, such as refilling of groundwater reserves or strengthening the Rio Grande, would “need well above-normal type of conditions in the snowpack,” Meyer said.
That’s unlikely as meteorologists expect to see a rare “triple-dip” in the annual La Niña weather pattern, meaning a third year of drier, warmer winter conditions in the Southwest.
The heavy October rains have been an unwelcome change for the region’s farmers.
“For the last couple weeks, every time farmers cut hay or Sudan grass, it seems to rain,” said Orlando Flores, the El Paso County representative for Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.
Alfalfa cuttings can handle one day of rain and some extra drying, he said, but the prolonged rains are another story.
“When it rains every day, green hay starts to turn yellow and bleaches,” he said. “After seven days it’s brown, like tobacco. It loses quality and color, and so, good luck trying to sell it.”
There’s no estimate yet how many acres of alfalfa may have been impacted in El Paso and Doña Ana counties, which are in the midst of harvesting the crop.
It remains unclear how much this month’s rains could impact hay prices this winter, when demand for hay to feed livestock increases.
Alfalfa prices remain at $350 a medium square, up $50 to $70 higher than last year due to high fuel costs for both cutting and transporting hay. Less hay could drive prices even higher.
Wet hay not only loses value – it can also be dangerous. Chemical reactions in loose, baled or stacked wet hay can cause spontaneous fires.
Farmers planted 3,000 fewer acres of Pima cotton this year because they were unable to irrigate their fields until early June due to an overtaxed Rio Grande. A shrunken river and low levels in Elephant Butte Reservoir prevented the March or April releases that farmers used to wet fields in previous decades.
Now, the October rains are feeding weeds, which cost more in time and labor to remove, or require chemicals. But herbicide-resistant weeds are coming up more frequently, making cotton harvest less efficient, said Flores.
The forecast rain on the horizon comes as farmers are preparing to crack open the cotton balls for harvest. Any open bolls exposed to rain make the cotton stringy, or pull it onto the ground, making it more difficult to harvest — or a total loss altogether.
“That’s the thing about rain, it never comes when you need it,” Flores said.