Floods have hit more than just Colorado, but will they fix the Southwest drought?


Remember early July in the Southwest? New Mexico and Arizona were in the grip of record drought exacerbated by record high temperatures. Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly declared a state of emergency for drought on July 2. Feral horses across the Rez were dying of thirst. Crops withered. Lake Powell, which got only a meagre boost from spring runoff, was plummeting toward a record low level. New Mexicans joked about renaming the Rio Grande, which was little more than a trickle in its lower reaches, to something less, well, river-y.

Then the monsoon arrived. And while all eyes have been, understandably, on Colorado’s water-wrecked Front Range, the Southwest has had its share of insane rains, flash floods and blown-out roads since July, with the worst hitting in September. Not only did the Rio Grande become a river again this summer, so did many usually dry washes. Though the flooding is likely not over, neither is the drought.

Just a few of this summer’s non-Colorado weird weather highlights:

• In July, Phoenix was swamped by a big rain that resulted in flash floods, closed roads and necessitated rescues. It also cooled things off, sort of: It provided two of the only four days between June 1 and Sept. 7 that the mercury didn’t top 100 degrees. Despite the occasional big rain, Phoenix still sweated through its hottest summer on record.

• Page, Ariz., and the rest of northern Arizona were pounded by rain in late July and early August. Antelope Canyon, perhaps the world’s most famous slot canyon, where 11 people were killed by a flash flood in 1997, filled up again. This time, the spectacle was captured on video by many an onlooker, including this great footage captured by David Rankin (a self-proclaimed flash flood chaser. Check out his site for other good footage). Woah!

• That storm caused flooding on the Navajo Nation, and then kept walloping the area afterwards, with some of the biggest rains hitting in September. Observers called it the “worst rain in decades” and it drove people from their homes, left many roads impassable, and killed dozens of sheep, according to the Navajo Times.

• In New Mexico, where the governor declared a state of emergency due to statewide flooding, the mountain town of Mogollon was cut off from the world when the road washed out; several homes were flooded along the Chama River north of Santa Fe; the Rio Puerco (of the East), normally a little stream of silt, raged to 8,000 cubic feet per second; and Madrid, the former mining-turned-hippy town south of Santa Fe was hit by a “sea of mud and coal.”

• As of Sept. 19, the storms seem to have subsided. The rivers are high, the sky is blue, the grass is green and the drought is long gone, right? Not quite. Yes, the rains brought oodles of much needed relief, but the drought persists in much of the West.  

Although the rains have brought vast improvement to the water situation in some parts of the West, they haven't healed the wound of drought altogether. Source: US Drought Monitor.

If you don’t believe the drought monitor, take a look at Lake Powell, a good barometer of water conditions in much of the West. By early September, the lake's surface elevation was a whopping 33 feet below last year's level on that date, and 65 feet below 2011's September level. The rains helped, barely: The water level rose about two feet before leveling off. It would take dozens of this summer’s biggest deluges to bring the lake back up anywhere near where it should be at this time of year. It could happen, I suppose. This region’s biggest floods have historically hit in the Fall; in Oct. 1911, rains pummeled and rivers raged to a degree that rivals what happened up on the Front Range this year. I’m keeping my umbrella handy, just in case.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. Follow him on Twitter @jonnypeace.

Peter Prince
Peter Prince Subscriber
Sep 24, 2013 03:36 PM
I was attempting to leave the Escalante Grand Staircase when the storm hit and was confronted with washed out road and frequent missing culverts. CLearly the road design could not deal with the event. Here in NM the level of Cochiti lake rose so quickly all the shitters were completely inundated adding extra flavor to the drinking water of the communities located downstream. The episode made me think of how the design standards for the nations infrastructure will need to be modified to accommodate the new flow rates for the design standard as the entire scale has been shifted by the recent weather events. Flow rates on rivers, bridges and culverts, flood zones for development, heights of dikes, sea walls, locations of water treatment plants etc. Where will the money come from? What segments of society will be fortunate enough to have replacement infrastructure and which will not? How long will it take for the masses to understand the folly of our elected officials?
Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder Subscriber
Sep 24, 2013 04:02 PM
WHICH Puerto Rico? New Mexico has one on either side of the Continental Divide. The link makes clear this is the eastern one, but the western one is famous for being irradiated in 1979 when a tailings pond dam burst at the Church Rock mine.
Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder Subscriber
Sep 24, 2013 04:04 PM
Oops, I meant which Rio Puerco, not which Puerto Rico!
Jonathan Thompson
Jonathan Thompson Subscriber
Sep 24, 2013 04:53 PM
Steve, good point. It's rather confusing to have two Rio Puercos in New Mexico, especially since they aren't far from one another (I've heard there is a third Rio Puerco). I was talking about the Rio Puerco of the East. The Rio Puerco of the West was pretty full, too, though as far as I can tell there are no USGS water gages on it, so I have no idea how big it got. I do know that for a brief time during one round of storms, a dam near Crownpoint, and near the Puerco of the West headwaters, was near its breaking point, threatening downstream homes. The dam didn't end up breaking, luckily. And yes, that's the river that had the uranium tailings pond burst back in 1979. I happened to be down in that very country during the recent stormy time, and drove over Hunter Wash, which runs through Bisti Badlands and is normally dry. It was raging: It had to be at least 700 cfs, probably more, w/ a huge reservoir backed up behind the highway bridge. Unfortunately, that stream, like so many on the Navajo Nation and vicinity, lacks a stream gage.
Evan Ravitz
Evan Ravitz
Sep 24, 2013 08:01 PM
Peter poses good questions. Money to fix the damage and prepare for worse could come from a BIG CARBON TAX, big enough to slow down the race for extinction "our" "leaders" are hurtling us down.

Here in Boulder, we were VERY lucky that our "1000-year" (.1% chance of occurring each year) rain only produced about a "50-year" flood level on Boulder Creek because it was spread out over days. Just 3 years ago I was evacuated for a week from what was then the most destructive fire in Colorado history, the Four Mile Fire just West of Boulder. Both the Waldo and Black Forest Fires near Colo. Spgs have already eclipsed it. AND, where I'm a wilderness guide in Mexico's Copper Canyon was quite damaged by a "500-year" localized flood in 2010, moving 15' boulders and wiping out a 50-tree mature orange grove.

It's the fire AND the flood this time. Fossil fools, REPENT!
Deb Dedon
Deb Dedon Subscriber
Sep 25, 2013 01:10 PM
I knew all that rain that refused to fall in the Tucson basin had to go somewhere, but local coverage was, well, strictly local.