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Arizona is wetter than usual, but the drought isn’t over yet

Experts say the Southwest needs a lot more than one wet season to reverse the effects of a 23-year drought.

(CN) — Amid an unusually wet winter, Arizona may be better off than other Southwest states as it continues to battle a 23-year drought.

Data gathered by the National Drought Mitigation Center shows Arizona’s drought conditions have improved since last year, but those improvements need to remain steady to make a difference.

“Arizona really is, in a lot of areas, without measures of drought or just abnormally dry,” said Arizona state climatologist Erinanne Saffell.

Saffell explained the center's findings Tuesday during a virtual briefing organized by the National Integrated Drought Information System, the USDA Southwest Climate Hub, the Drought Learning Network and the Arizona State Climate Office.

All of central and most of southern Arizona is not currently in drought, Saffell said. Regions of northern and western Arizona that last year experienced what the center calls “moderate drought” are now just “abnormally dry,” and no parts of Arizona are facing “severe drought.”

Arizona, presented on a colored map of the Southwest in which red and orange colors indicate more extreme drought while white and yellow indicate a lack therof, is particularly devoid of dark colors compared to California, Nevada and Utah, which are covered largely by red and orange.

Saffell attributed Arizona’s current conditions to last summer's strong monsoon season and above-average precipitation over the last 30 days.

Following one of the driest April to May periods on record, the 2022 monsoon “actually mitigated a lot of drought levels,” Saffell said.

In just the last 30 days, precipitation across the Southwest ranged from 200 to 400% above average. Snow-water equivalent, a ratio used to determine how much liquid water will result from the winter snowpack, is about 217% above average in the Lower Colorado River Basin. It’s at about 146% for the upper basin.

“We’re happy to see that,” Saffell said. “We’re hopeful that it maintains. We do understand that things can change."

While the snowpack is high, the Southwest’s reservoirs remain lower than average.

“Lake Mead and Lake Powell are dealing with a lot of issues that are deeply entrenched,” she said. “If we’re looking at Arizona reservoirs, they’re doing better.”

The Salt and Verde River system is about 70% full, a 6% increase from this time last year.

Along with mitigating drought, Saffell said the wet winter, which has also increased soil moisture to above-average levels, will lead to a strong wildflower season.

The good news doesn’t mean Arizona is in the clear, though.

“It’s a challenge when we’re looking at a nice wet season,” Saffell said. “It looks great right now, but especially in Arizona we can go back to 1994. We’ve only had nine wet years and 20 dry years.

“There’s a huge deficit that has to be made up. It does take a little bit more than one wet season.”

Nikki Tulley, a doctoral candidate at the University of Arizona and a member of NASA’s Indigenous People’s Initiative, spent the second half of the briefing explaining the development of a Drought Severity Observation Tool.

The tool, which Tulley used to show the drought’s effects on the Navajo Nation, uses Navajo rain gauges, NASA satellite data and model data to analyze the land and create “drought reports” for the nation.

Tulley said the team working on the tool hopes it can be a free, user-friendly web tool to help everyday people understand the drought’s effects on the land.

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