By Russell Contreras and Julian Hattem, Associated Press
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Drought is tightening its grip across the American Southwest as extreme conditions spread from Oklahoma to Utah, according to new federal data released Thursday.
On the southern high plains, Oklahoma remains ground zero for the worst drought conditions in the United States. About 20 percent of the state is facing exceptional drought conditions — the worst possible classification.
Most of Colorado also is under severe drought and almost all of the Texas Panhandle is seeing extreme drought or worse conditions.
The federal drought map shows dry conditions have expanded in Arizona and intensified across northern New Mexico.
Royce Fontenot, a senior hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque, said the drought has developed rather quickly thanks to a dry winter.
Some areas of Union and Colfax counties in northeastern New Mexico have received less that 5 percent of normal precipitation over the past six months, leaving wheat crops in poor shape. Many areas went over 100 days without moisture.
“That’s incredible, even for New Mexico,” Fontenot said during a briefing Thursday.
Most of the storms that have crossed the region have been what Fontenot calls “dust cutters” rather than drought busters. In other words, they haven’t produced meaningful snow or rain.
Overall, nearly half of New Mexico and Arizona are facing extreme drought or worse conditions while about 60 percent of Utah is under severe drought, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center.
Utah’s drought can be traced to a 12-week stretch of low precipitation this winter, when the mountains saw some of the lowest snow totals in recent history — also an ominous sign for the state’s renowned skiing sites.
“People come here to ski Utah powder, and when you don’t have it snowmaking has to take over,” said Brian McInerney, a hydrologist at the National Weather Service. “Snowmaking is not as good as what you get naturally from the atmosphere.”
Much of Utah’s water reserves were replenished last winter, after a bruising period from 2012 to 2016 that nearly depleted the state’s water reserves.
As a result, lack of water isn’t a concern now, McInerney said.
But danger of forest fires will be elevated as the hot summer edges closer, he said.
Fire danger across much of the region was elevated Thursday by strong winds that prompted red-flag warnings and other advisories as 50 mph gusts in some places kicked up dry soil and reduced visibility.
Associated Press reporter Julian Hattem contributed to this report from Salt Lake City. Susan Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque.