Even as Spectacular Storms Bring Relief to U.S. Southwest, Drought Conditions Persist — and Worsen in California

By Tom Yulsman | July 31, 2014 5:59 pm

A massive thunderhead blossoming over the Manzano Mountains, about 30 miles southeast of Albuquerque, New Mexico, as photographed on the evening of Wednesday, July 30th, 2014 by photojournalist Jerry Redfern.  (Photograph: © Jerry Redfern)

After a profound lack of precipitation, parts of the Southwestern United States have finally begun to get some desperately needed relief.

New Mexico, where the spectacular photo above was taken yesterday, has been suffering through four years of drought. And while the drought hasn’t ended (not by a long shot), the storms have finally come — in very dramatic fashion.

Overall, rainfall totals through July 29th have been twice normal in several New Mexico locations, according to the latest report from the U.S. Drought Monitor, out today. Albuquerque has accumulated 3.34 inches — a whopping 242 percent of normal. That has made it the wettest July on record for the city.

Rainfall since late June has almost made up the precipitation deficit for the entire year, at least as measured at Albuquerque’s airport.

A friend and colleague, Jerry Redfern, who lives just south of the city, took the photograph above yesterday evening. The massive thunderhead blossomed just east of the Manzano Mountains. Jerry reports that it produced half-dollar sized hail and winds above 60 miles per hour.

Thunderstorm activity in the region also produced spectacular displays of lightning:

Yesterday’s storms began building late afternoon and early evening, and then really took off beginning around sunset. You can see them building and then sweeping across the region in this weather radar animation covering 6 p.m. Wednesday through 6 a.m. this morning (Thursday):

Southern Arizona has also benefited from recent rainfall. It’s all part of a normal monsoonal pattern that typically gets into high gear in July. So far, this year’s monsoon has been generous. But it still has not been enough to break the drought:

stormsAs the map shows, almost all of New Mexico and Arizona are still in categorized as being in moderate to severe drought.

Lastly, take a look at California. Unfortunately, the state has not shared much of its neighbors’ good fortune. As the today’s Drought Monitor report today sadly put it:

Increasingly, drought indicators point to the fact that conditions are not appreciably better in northern California than in central and southern sections of the state. In addition, mounting evidence from reservoir levels, river gauges, ground water observations, and socio-economic impacts warrant a further expansion of exceptional drought (D4) into northern California. For California’s 154 intrastate reservoirs, storage at the end of June stood at 60% of the historical average. Although this is not a record for this time of year—the standard remains 41% of average on June 30, 1977—storage has fallen to 17.3 million acre-feet. As a result, California is short more than one year’s worth of reservoir water, or 11.6 million acre-feet, for this time of year. The historical average warm-season drawdown of California’s 154 reservoirs totals 8.2 million acre-feet, but usage during the first 2 years of the drought, in 2012 and 2013, averaged 11.5 million acre-feet.

With the hottest and driest part of the year still to come in California, relief may be a ways off.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, select, Top Posts, Weather
  • ImMikeSpike

    Environmentalists should say try to ‘conserve’ fragile resources, but Californians, long on talk and short on water seem to hate the label, conservative. Conservative North Texas has shown the way with sensible use of resources and conserving the valuable resource with dams and reasonable planning. California is looking to send their people to consume other states resources, while not making use of the Pacific Ocean and letting Sierra runoff go to the Pacific. California needs to ‘conserve’ the environmental resources the have.

    • Tom Yulsman

      Pitting regions and people against each other will not accomplish anything constructive. The fact is that drought has been afflicting much of the West for many years, stretching from Texas to California. And folks in northern Texas aren’t in any better shape than those in California. In fact, I have to politely correct you on your facts. The Ogallala aquifer in the Texas panhandle (last I looked that was in the northern part of the state) has been experiencing an accelerating drop, thanks to more and more pumping by farmers, who are only trying to get by as less and less water falls from the sky. I’m not blaming them. I’ve interviewed Texas cotton farmers, and I understand what they face. I’m just giving you the facts.

      The Ogallala is huge, stretching from South Dakota all the way down into Texas, and it has been dropping for decades as farmers and communities draw more water than is recharged back into the aquifer by precipitation. And contrary to your assertion, the drops have been greatest in Texas. You can find the details here: https://www.texastribune.org/2013/05/22/ogallala-aquifer-texas-panhandle-suffers-big-drop/ and here: http://www.usgs.gov/newsroom/article.asp?ID=3595#.U9rfkoB5ybt

      If you are referring to the fact that Texas has more dams than any other state, including California, while true, this is only part of the story. Dallas-Fort Worth has the highest water use per capita in the state — and they have done very little to be “conservative” with that precious resource.

      A proposal to build a big new dam in the rural northeastern part of the state has met with fierce opposition from otherwise conservative locals. They have every right to try to protect the 70,000 acres of their farms, forests, and wildlife habitat for hunting, which would otherwise have been destroyed by the dam. Do you see it otherwise? Are you on the side of wasteful homeowners in Dallas, some of whom can use 1,000 gallons of water in a single day just to keep their lawns green? Or are you on the side of those farmers, who would like to keep growing crops — which actually benefits all of us?

      As for California “not making use of the Pacific Ocean,” it’s easy for you to advocate for desalination, since you don’t live there and you wouldn’t have to pay for the astronomical costs of water provided by that technology. Although new technologies could eventually help bring down costs, and ultimately some communities along the coast might benefit, there is NO practical way to supply the bulk of the state’s water needs this way.

      Concerning your claim that California is “letting Sierra runoff go to the Pacific,” that is a rather simplistic way of looking at it. The state is dotted with dams, and it is home to some of the most impressive water projects in the world. We can debate how much of a difference yet more dams would make, along with the economic tradeoffs (more dams could mean less fish, for example). But to frame it the way you did dishonors both Texans and Californians. Both states are struggling. Farmers in both regions are hurting. We need innovative AMERICAN ideas, not merely liberal or conservative ideas, to work our way out of the situation. And we certainly don’t need more partisan bickering.

      • hazeljdawson

        just before I looked at the draft of $8280 , I didnt believe …that…my best friend woz truly receiving money in their spare time at their laptop. . there great aunt has done this for under 14 months and recently repaid the loans on there apartment and bourt a brand new Mercedes-Benz S-class . Check This Out J­a­m­2­0­.­C­O­M­

      • Thomas Amnesia

        Here’s an idea. The Northeast spends Trillions of dollars treating sewage so what is being put back in the rivers, lakes and streams is potable. And they are still spending Billions more building new treatment plants and sewer systems.
        Have the Southwest pool their resources (no pun intended) and build a network of waterlines leading from the N’east to the S’west. If you think that’s impossible, think “natural gas”, the Alaskan pipeline, etc. Then spend the rest of that pool building, maintaining, and operating those sewage treatment plants, then the S’west can have whatever comes out for free – and that’s a phenomenal amount.

        Then everyone in both regions will have a vested interest in conservation.

    • Thomas Amnesia

      Speaking of labels, double-speak, and creative phrasing, let’s call it what it is.

      The US Southwest, and far into Mexico, is a large, arid desert. OK? A thin strip along the Pacific is the only place that gets any amount of humidity coming off the ocean.

      This is not a drought. It’s the norm for a desert. Science has shown that the last 100 years have been unusually wet, and it’s now returning to normal – for a desert.

      Humans have all the water they NEED in that region. We just don’t have all the water we WANT. You know, for our pools, lawns, water parks, slip-and-slides, hosing off the cars, and the lovely aquatic displays at, of all places, casinos in Las Vegas.

      Worst of all, we think we can FARM in the desert! Sure, let’s dam the rivers and divert every drop. Screw anyone downstream – like millions of people in Mexico! We don’t leave enough water for the Colorado to make it to the Gulf. Then we’ll drill for water, deplete the aquifer, and wonder why Needles is a big sink-hole.

      How can we have a serious conversation about water conservation when the people in the S’west don’t want to be the ones to conserve? When we moved to Houston, Phoenix, and Vegas from Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland, we didn’t bring the water with us and there’s not much here.

      Guaranteed, in the end we will deplete every drop we can find, kill all the plants and animals, and expect someone else to send water. We’ve already started with billions of little plastic bottles. Where do you think those come from?

  • shotonsite

    what a coincidence.. here’s the very same cloud from the other side, and slightly south (about 11 miles south of Mountainair, and 6600′. 8:08PM). The sunlight hitting the clouds in Mr Redfern’s picture are turning the cloud into the world’s biggest photo reflector, and it’s lighting up the East side of the Manzanos like it’s still daylight! Survived the night and the hail with windshield intact.. http://on.fb.me/1nUwBUY

    • Tom Yulsman

      Nice shot! Thank you for sharing it.



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


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