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for people who care about the West

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.