Come Rain or Shine

Drought & the 2021 Monsoon Season

November 03, 2021 USDA Southwest Climate Hub & DOI Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center Season 2 Episode 13
Come Rain or Shine
Drought & the 2021 Monsoon Season
Show Notes Transcript

2020 and the first half of 2021 were brutal drought years for the Southwest U.S. continuing a much longer term regional drought.  But this monsoon season brought welcome rain to many places in the region, with flowing washes and bright green vegetation. Many are asking, is the drought over? Surely if there is water in our usually dry washes, we must be out of drought. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case, and almost all of the region is still in at least moderate drought, according to the latest drought monitor. This month we chat with three state climatologists, Drs.  Dave DuBois, Erin Saffell, and Steph McAfee, to hear how the monsoon has affected drought conditions and how drought is impacting their states. Image source: Pixabay


Climate Assessment for the Southwest (CLIMAS) podcast

CLIMAS Dec 2014 SW Climate Podcast video - What is El Nino?

CLIMAS May 2015 SW Climate Podcast video - Jetstream & El NIño

If you’re enjoying this podcast, please consider rating us and/or leaving us a review on Apple Podcasts, Podcast Addict, or Podchaser Thanks!

Follow us on Twitter @RainShinePod
Never miss an episode!
Sign up to get an email alert whenever a new episode publishes
Have a suggestion for a future episode?
Please tell us!

Affiliate links:
DOI Southwest CASC:
USDA Southwest Climate Hub:
Sustainable Southwest Beef Project (NIFA Grant #2019-69012-29853): 

[00:00:00] Sarah LeRoy: Welcome to Come Rain or Shine, podcast of the USDA Southwest Climate Hub and the USGS Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center or Southwest CASC. I'm Sarah LeRoy, Science Applications and Communications Coordinator for the Southwest CASC. 

[00:00:17] Emile Elias: And I'm Emile Elias, Director of the Southwest Climate Hub. Here we highlight stories to share the most recent advances in climate science, weather and climate adaptation and innovative practices to support resilient landscapes and communities. 

[00:00:33] Sarah LeRoy: We believe that sharing some of the most innovative forward thinking and creative climate science and adaptation will strengthen our collective ability to respond to even the most challenging impacts of climate change in one of the hottest and driest regions of the world.

2020 and the first half of 2021 were brutal drought years for the Southwest US, continuing a much longer term regional drought. But this monsoon season brought welcome rain to many places in the region with flowing washes and bright green vegetation. Many are asking is the drought over? Surely, if there is water in our usually dry washes, we must be out of drought.

Unfortunately, this isn't the case and almost all of the region is still in at least moderate drought, according to the latest drought monitor. We're going to talk with three state climatologists to hear how the monsoon has affected drought conditions and how drought is impacting the region. Dr. Erin Saffell is the director of the Arizona State Climate Office at Arizona State University, where she serves as the Arizona state climatologist.

Her main research interests are extreme weather and climate events and the impacts of the urban heat island. Dr. Dave Dubois is the New Mexico State Climatologist and a professor at New Mexico State University, where he researches the effects of meteorology and climate on air quality. Dr. Steph McAfee is the Nevada State Climatologist and a professor at University of Nevada Reno, where she analyzes both historical climate and projections of future climate and applies that information to resource management and conservation questions.

Before we start discussing the monsoon and drought, I'd like to ask you all about being state climatologists. What exactly does it mean to be a state climatologist? What are your responsibilities and what does your average day look like? What's your favorite part of the job? Steph, why don't you start us off?

[00:02:40] Steph Mcafee: Thanks Sarah. So I was trying to think about my, a good answer to this question. And so I, for me being the state climatologist is primarily about being sort of the climate information resource officer for the state. So as, as the state climatologist, a lot of my duties are around making sure that anyone in the state who needs weather and climate information to do their job, or to make a decision about how to spend their time, has that information in a way they can get to and a way they can understand.

And that might mean simply routing someone towards some information that's already online, or it might mean figuring out how to do a research project to get that information, which is of course a much bigger undertaking. And I don't have an average day because like many state climatologists, I'm also a professor.

So I also teach classes and do research and do all of the weird administrative things that college professors do. So my schedule looks very different depending on what semester it is. And it can even look different day to day, depending on whether we're having a drought or where, whether we're in one of Nevada's rare, quiet climate periods, where nothing too exciting is going on and we all are taking a breath before our next adventure. 

[00:04:12] Sarah LeRoy: Thanks Steph. Dave, is there anything you'd like to add to what a state climatologist does? And what's your favorite part of the job? 

[00:04:19] Dave Dubois: Yeah. You know, if you would've asked me that question, like 11 years ago, I would have given you a blank stare. No, no, seriously. I really, I learned like what the state climatologist does from my peers and we meet every year. And yeah, my first year was back in 2010 and then I just, I was just hired as a state climatologist, but only just a few months. And I was asking a lot of my neighboring states saying, what, what, so what do you do as a state climatologist?

And they were very helpful in so I I've since learned and kind of still learning and, you know, for New Mexico my, my position is actually written in state statutes. So there are some official things that I need to do that are that it is basically, it's very similar to what Steph says. It's kind of, being a climate focal point for the state.

I know there's other climate focal points out there for the National Weather Service, but this is a more of a you know, for the entire state and kind of work with stakeholders. You know, folks, you know, that are around dealing with whatever topic. You know, like the topic of this podcast, I'm talking about drought and water and, and you know, what, what are some of the programs and how do we link people up and how do we educate in a, you know, in, you know, bringing that in and as part of the education that the university as well, kind of, so what things need to be brought in and taught here to train the next generation.

So I'm still learning though.

[00:05:53] Sarah LeRoy: I think we're all still learning, Dave. Thanks. So Erin, you know, you're a fairly new state climatologist, so, so far, you know, what's the most exciting part for you? 

[00:06:04] Erin Saffell: You know, this is really exciting for me to be the state climatologist for Arizona because I was born and raised in Arizona.

This is my state. And so it's thrilling to me to be able to serve my state in this way. I mean, I, my earliest memories are, you know, my family sandbagging our house in Scottsdale from a flood. And that's from, you know, a huge event that happened in 1970, it was tropical storm Norma. And so those kinds of things live with me and that extreme weather lives with me.

And that's what we have here in Arizona is it's, you know, too much water or not enough water. So right now, as a new state climatologist, I serve on a lot of committees, I give a lot of media interviews and I give a lot of presentations. I also teach classes at ASU. So, you know, it's, it's a lot of swirling and, and trying to be of service as much as possible.

But my view of a state climatologist is one of perspective and context. And so I try and bring that to Arizona. 

[00:07:05] Emile Elias: Well, thanks to all of you for those explanations and for being here with your very, very busy jobs teaching and providing information that people need to know. So now let's get into the big topic for today, the drought, the monsoon, and what's ahead. Erin, Arizona has had a remarkable and in some areas, even generational monsoon this year, what kind of impacts have you seen from that?

And what does it mean for ranchers and resource managers in the state. 

[00:07:35] Erin Saffell: You know, in June, there was a lot of concern that our monsoon would repeat the non-soon from last year. Arizona had the most wildfires across the United States in June, that built a lot of burn scars. The stock ponds were dry and, and ranchers needed to truck in water.

So there was a lot of concern what would happen. And then fortunately, we don't usually have dry summers, you know, two or three summers in a row. So fortunately we had a very wet July. It ended up being the second wettest July on record, and we had record breaking precipitation for the monsoon season at several locations, like along the Mogollon Rim and Southern Arizona.

Unfortunately, we also did have a lot of flash flooding and debris flows along the burn scars. There was water that was running in our channels in central and Southern Arizona. SRP experienced so much inflow in their reservoirs that they released water in the reservoirs along the Salt river. I was trying to remember if I ever experienced that in Arizona. And I don't recall that ever happening in my lifetime, where they actually had to release water in the summer. So that was amazing. Most of the state greened up and forage increased and, and so it was really neat to look out and see a green landscape.

Now that wasn't everywhere in Arizona, some counties to our north and to our west got hardly any precipitation. So, you know, we're still entrenched in that short and long-term drought in a lot of parts of Arizona. 

[00:09:10] Emile Elias: Thanks, Erin. And so contrasting that a little bit, Steph, in terms of the greenness and increased forage production and water in washes. According to the latest drought monitor, large portions of Nevada are still in extreme and exceptional drought, the highest classifications of drought.

How are people in your state coping? And have you heard of any resilience strategies that you'd like to mention?

[00:09:35] Steph Mcafee: Well, so, you know, I will say sort of like Arizona's experience. We did have some very heavy summer storms, not nearly as heavy as Arizona's and not as widespread. So while the state is entirely in drought, you know, the least severe drought in our state is actually still D-1 moderate drought.

We had flash flooding in and around Las Vegas, as well as in Northeast Nevada, up in the Ruby mountains and, and in a very beautiful, popular recreation area called Lamoille Canyon. So. While we didn't get enough rain to take care of the drought, we did have flooding in the middle of drought, which was, I don't know, ironic, maybe? Maybe just something we're going to have to get used to. But in terms of how people in the state are coping, one thing to know is that many aspects of Nevada are just really good at drought. Our large municipal water suppliers plan for droughts. And so a drought that lasts a year or two is not that big a deal.

Just yesterday I was listening to a talk from the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which serves most of Clark county and they were talking about many of the massive investments they've made in water conservation. Everything from encouraging low flow fixtures inside and xeriscaping to a new state law that in Southern Nevada actually says in commercial and industrial places, you may not have what they call non-functional turf.

It's basically, I've heard it explained as the grass that only the lawn mower is going to go on. And so in many of our cities and towns, water supplies have been fine, you know, within reasonable conservation measures, it is a dry state. The biggest impacts have been in agriculture. We had a couple of our reservoirs that serve a lot of agriculture dropped to about 5% of capacity, which is, both dire and not entirely unprecedented. And so in agriculture, people have been taking steps as well. So they've been relying on USDA programs to help with things like hauling water for stock out on the range. Also, some folks have been pulling in their livestock early, getting them off the range. You know, because there's less to eat out there than there would normally be.

So, you know, we've certainly seen people employ sort of the whole range of strategies that they've practiced over multiple droughts in Nevada and people here generally say a year or two of drought is okay. Though certainly this drought has been impactful for agriculture. It's when we start getting into that third year of drought or the fourth year of drought, that people really, really start to worry.

[00:12:35] Sarah LeRoy: Dave similar to Arizona, New Mexico in general seems to be in a less dire state than before the monsoon season had started. We're hearing though that we may be headed into another La Niña winter. So do you have any sage thoughts or words of wisdom for people, both resource managers and others as we look ahead?

[00:12:57] Dave Dubois: Yeah. Yeah. I don't know about sage, but it's been, you know, we've had multiple years of, you know, bad, the kind of non-soon type of situation. And so it's, it's hit many aspects, not only the folks who rely on rainfall, but also those who rely on surface water. And, you know, as we transition to fall, you know, we've already seen our first snow in New Mexico and Southern Colorado.

And you know, I kind of tilt my radar toward the SNOTEL and some of the CoCoRaHS snow measurements in and that sort of, you know, all eyes are on that this year because, you know, it's you know, we're seeing two La Niña's and for us in New Mexico we tend to see there's, tend to see more warmer than average and drier and less snow. I know warm, warm in the mountains. And so last year, you know, we had right around average snowpack in Colorado, but as you went south, it we got less and less snow. And I know I like to go hiking and looking at different, you know, there's a lot of webcams that are pointed at some of the ski areas and it's like, boy that, there's almost no snow.

You know, and as we go toward the spring and it's like, we need really some good snowpack and so we're, we're, you know, that warning of another La Niña is sort of a, okay, prepare and look for, look at the, know what, what to expect for irrigation, especially those that are on the irrigation districts.

Here in Southern New Mexico, that's a very sensitive one because of you know, we're in lawsuits with Texas and you know, and then there's water that's needed for irrigation. So there's a lot of people are very concerned and they should be about snowpack. And even though we had about an average monsoon, it's still that concern about what's coming down the Rio Grande and that, that is a big, a big topic.

And we're still looking at the models and, and cause at least for this , the rest of the month it looks pretty dry. So it doesn't look real positive for precip you know, coming in in the fall. But so yeah, it's I know we're given a lot of um, webinars and talks about La Niña, and what does that look like?

And I mean, there have been some La Niñas that haven't been as bad. There has been some average snowpack years on those. So, I'm really hoping for those kinds of La Niñas, as opposed to some of them who are really warm and dry. So. That's where, that's where it is right now. 

[00:15:56] Sarah LeRoy: Thanks Dave. So as this discussion shows us even with a well above average monsoon season, it doesn't mean that we're quote out of drought. Drought conditions persisting throughout the region, even as washes are flowing. It seems in some places, however, that this message isn't quite getting out there. We recently saw a news article saying that we're out of drought and I found that a bit shocking. So do you have any thoughts on how to effectively communicate our longer term drought status and maybe advice for others trying to communicate this as well? Steph, why don't we start with you? 

[00:16:33] Steph Mcafee: Well, I'm going to say in terms of this particular communication issue, I think I have it easier than either Erin or Dave. So a lot of people think about Las Vegas when they think about Nevada and Las Vegas does generally expect to get some rain in the summer associated with the monsoon. Nevada is bigger than most people realize and stretches further north than most people realize, right? Our Northern border actually touches Oregon and Idaho.

And so in the Northern part of the state where I live, we actually don't rely that much on summer rains associated with the monsoon, summer tends to be a pretty dry season. If we get some rain in the summer, of course, that's nice. And we appreciate that, but we're not counting on it or expecting it in the way that you would further south.

So for us, the fact that there was some rain in the summer, and that was mostly in Southern, Eastern Nevada with the part of the state where I live, we went a very long time without rain this summer. Dave mentioned CoCoRaHs, and I was just emptying dust and pine needles out of my CoCoRaHs gauge for weeks and weeks on end. It was very disappointing.

So it's been a little bit easier up here in Northern Nevada. And then in Southern Nevada, so much of the water comes from the Colorado river. 90% of Las Vegas' water comes out of Lake Mead that when Southern Nevada is thinking about drought, they're looking at lake levels. And of course,Lake Mead has been dropping for 20 years.

So that's almost something that you need to mention once in a while, but people are very aware of how precious that resource is. And also that it's a resource that has been diminishing. So, I don't know if Erin or Dave you have sort of better advice. I I've just been running on being weirdly located for the Southwest.

[00:18:38] Sarah LeRoy: Thanks, steph. Actually, yeah. I'd like to hear from Erin cause building on that Lake Mead comment, you know, we're facing in Arizona, these tier one water shortages, which is for the agriculture, but it's still very dire for them. And so, yeah. Erin, do you have any comments on that, along with this, this question of communicating about drought?

[00:18:59] Erin Saffell: Well, Arizona has been in this most current drought since the mid 1990s. And so it's a challenge to communicate to folks. And there's a structure that changes across the state. Rural communities struggle a little bit more than urban locations. It's important to understand who uses our water, who needs the water and it's agriculture largely.

And so those are in the rural communities and it's, it's a tough thing to, to talk about or to understand, because we can turn on the faucet in our house and we can get water. And that. That we're grateful to all of the amazing people that are out there managing our water supply. So, you know, Central Arizona project, Salt River Project, Arizona Department of Water Resources, all of these folks are building the ability for us to, to use water in Arizona.

So, you know, it's, it's just becomes a matter of from my perspective education, make sure people understand what's going on. Where our water comes from, how is it used those kinds of things. And I remember as a small child back to the 1970s, but there was a PSA on TV where, you know, you're not supposed to let your water run while you're brushing your teeth.

And that still resonates with me. So those kinds of conservation techniques are really essential as well. 

[00:20:26] Sarah LeRoy: Thanks, Erin. Dave, do you have anything to add? 

[00:20:30] Dave Dubois: Yeah, I think you know, we, we really need to rely on, on media a lot. And you know, I, a lot in the past, I've unfortunately, you know, missed a lot of opportunities.

But I, I, I really enjoy talking with various media outlets, both TV, radio, and then newspaper. And I, I, I make sure and really, you know, simplify the message. And I think it's good. Cause I mean, I go into church on Sunday and I and several people read an article that was published in the local paper.

And, and so the people are reading the, these, you know, the print or electronic versions of the local papers. And I think the word is getting out. I think we can't slow down that message. And I think I'm, you know, I think it's good that we do social media, but that, you know, that, that reaches a certain group of folks.

And I think the newspaper and TV is good too. I think those are great, you know, but it's like how much it takes a lot of effort to, to to be on, and to be available and to you know, a lot of times you know, you get a call and, you know, they, they usually give me heads up and then I'll scurry and calculate some averages and things and you know, it may take an hour, you know, so, but you know, that's part of being, as, you know, somebody who's being relied on for information.

And I think all, all of the state climatologists have that kind of a relationship with the media. And I think it's, you know, we need to really take advantage of that and may know, train others to do the same thing. 

[00:22:08] Emile Elias: Thanks Dave. So something Erin said led me to another question for you. And this is a question for all of you.

So we've been in a drought in parts of the region since the mid nineties, or even before. And so, at what point does this drought condition become our expectation or become our new normal? And I know of course you calculate normals or averages based on 30 years of data. So there's, there's an answer for that based on the data and how you look at it.

But, what are your expectations for the future? And, and is this, is this an anomaly that we've been in this very long drought? So yeah, any of you that you want to jump on that question? Thanks.

[00:22:55] Dave Dubois: I can start it. I mean, I, I constantly get asked questions about Elephant Butte reservoir. What's our largest reservoir in New Mexico and it's in the it, the whole purpose of that was for irrigation.

In one of the things that we look at, I always say, You know, we report the current storage. You know, right now it's around 7% pretty low. I mean, that's, that's really low, but, but if you look at, you know, we, we, a lot of times we compare to like the, the right before that, where the drought we call it, you know, right around the late nineties, there was a really wet period there and we tend to compare to that but, maybe we should look at a longer period. But we're still dry, even, even comparing to those conditions, you know? And, and the, the main thing I've been talking with people is, you know, it's, there is no real normal, new normal. It's, this has changed. You know, we're going into a different state.

And temperatures are a lot warmer. And, you know, we constantly talk about evaporation and to the folks who are dealing with range evapotranspiration, you know, that, that stress on plants, you know, that summers are hotter than they used to be. And those kinds of preparing folks and talking about that, and, you know, I don't even bring up climate change, but other than, you know, if you looked at the drought monitor over the last few years and why, why don't get out of drought after the monsoon, even when that monsoon was average. You know, those are some of the questions we get and this, yeah, that makes sense. You know, we, we're still seeing the lingering effects of high temperatures, even though we get good rain and there's still, there's still some lingering impacts of drought.

It's harder to shake it these days. So it's that. That engaging folks and getting more information about what, how do they manage with this? And you know, what, if it continues this, those are the questions and those are open-ended questions.

[00:24:46] Erin Saffell: Well, understanding drought is challenging. It's it's like trying to get healthier and working out and exercising. You, you work out and you exercise and you don't see any muscles grow. But they're in there and they're growing and you can't see things happening right away. It's the same thing with drought. It, it can happen and be present. And we may not recognize that we're in drought for several years.

And then we may not recognize when we come out of drought for several years. So it's, it's one of those challenging things to try and you know, provide context to as the state climatologist, where are we? What are the trends look like? Has it been worse than this? Those kinds of things I think are important in understanding for folks to understand.

[00:25:29] Emile Elias: Thanks Erin. Anything you'd like to add, Steph? 

[00:25:32] Steph Mcafee: Yeah. You know, I think I'll say too. So I work a lot with paleoclimatologists people who are using tree rings or lake sediments to look at climate over hundreds or thousands of years. In fact, I can't escape this because I'm married to a dendrochronologist who really likes to talk about his work, you know, dinner, weekends, the whole nine yards.

And so we know that even without this sort of trend towards climate change. And I agree with Dave, it's not a new normal, right? The new normal is just going to be something we're constantly trying to figure out. We know that we had long droughts in the past before. So to have a 20 year drought in Arizona is actually not really unprecedented.

And that was before it started getting warmer and adding this additional evaporative stress and adding all of the millions of people who now live in the southwest and want to use our fairly limited and pretty variable water supplies. So, you know, I think it's kind of both a shift to new conditions, but also just a return of something that maybe we haven't paid attention to because it happened so far in the past.

And we tend to have pretty short attention spans with how busy our lives all get.

[00:26:51] Emile Elias: Great, thanks, Steph. We like to end our podcasts on a hopeful note. So I'd like to ask each of you now, what gives you hope for the future? And I'll go ahead and start with Dave.

[00:27:04] Dave Dubois: Right. Well, I think we have a lot of tools.

We've got good ways to estimate, you know, the basically prepare for things. I think that's our, I mean, a lot of hope if it, it was bad is if we were caught off guard. Those are the things that we're, we're, we're better than we we've done before in terms of estimating, you know, it's not just the weather forecasting or climate, seasonal climate, you know, there's, there's still a lot of work that needs to be done there, but like comparing even just five years ago, you know, 10 years ago, you know, tools out there that, that give, give you some options early on so that we can prepare and, you know, becoming more you know, we can adapt to these things and be, you know, had back in 2011, we've had a bunch of meetings with, uh, folks in the cattle industry and, you know, kind of lessons learned.

And I think, you know, sharing those, you know, I think we've gone through a lot and then some folks who've gone through the fifties drought. And sharing those and learning and you know, those are really good times when we get together and chat about those and reflect on it and say, okay, well, if we got those things coming down the pike, you know, what do we do?

And I think those that those are the hope is like, okay, we can prepare for this. We're going to be ready. And there's, there's some some concrete things we can do, you know, there's, there's things we can apply for and, and work together as a community. I think that, that's my biggest hope is, is that. 

[00:28:33] Emile Elias: Erin, what gives you hope for the future?

[00:28:36] Erin Saffell: I'm a fairly optimistic person and I'm thrilled to work with my students. I remember as an undergrad that I just wanted to learn everything. I would take classes and I just wanted to know it all, but I didn't really have a sense as an undergrad as to how I could give back. And now my students show up in my classroom wanting to contribute.

They want to make a difference. They each have their own experiences. And they take information from my class and they build something unique. I find that exciting. And I'm very hopeful for the future because of them. 

[00:29:09] Emile Elias: Steph, now to you, what gives you hope for the future? 

[00:29:13] Steph Mcafee: I think I'm starting to see people plan for the future and try to think about how to make their communities and businesses, families, even more resilient to changing climate. And I'm seeing this happen all over Nevada from small towns to tribal governments to major metropolitan areas are planning to be robust, healthy, wonderful places to live into the future. And just seeing how widespread this is, is really amazing. On a more local note.

It's snowed at my house on Tuesday in October. And I know that it's not, it doesn't say anything about what the rest of the winter will bring, but after last October it was really nice. 

[00:30:01] Emile Elias: Steph, it snowed at my house too! It was great. I can relate to that. Oh, so Erin Saffell, Steph McAfee, Dave Dubois. Thank you so much for being with us today.

Do you have any last thoughts you'd like to share before we wrap up?

[00:30:20] Dave Dubois: I always like to plug CoCoRaHs and take this opportunity, if you're interested in helping out the climate community drought, become a member of the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network and 

[00:30:34] Emile Elias: Perfect. Thanks Dave.

And we actually have a podcast episode on CoCoRaHs that you can check out if you want more information on that. All right. Thanks everyone.

[00:30:45] Sarah LeRoy: In this episode, we discuss La Niña and we often get questions about the El Nino Southern Oscillation or ENSO, what it is and how it impacts the Southwest. If you'd like to learn more about ENSO, we encourage you to check out the Southwest Climate podcast produced by our colleagues at Climate Assessment for the Southwest or CLIMAS. We include links to their podcast in this episode description.

[00:31:11] Emile Elias: Thanks for listening to Come Rain or Shine, podcast of the USDA Southwest Climate Hub

[00:31:16] Sarah LeRoy: and the USGS Southwest CASC. If you liked this podcast, don't forget to rate or review it and subscribe for more great episodes. A special thanks to our production crew, Skye Aney and Reanna Burnett. If you want more information, have any questions for the speakers or would like to offer feedback, please reach out to us via our websites.