The Colorado River Basin
By Zayna Syed Arizona Republic
Drought will continue into the spring months across Arizona, increasing wildfire risk and stress on water resources and agriculture, according to a new forecast by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The projected level of drought means there will likely be a below-average snowpack in the mountains, drier than normal soil moisture and a lack of water availability in places, according to Brad Pugh, a meteorologist with the Climate Prediction Center at NOAA.
Arizona has experienced a long-term drought dating back to 1996, which was exacerbated by a dry monsoon season in 2020, when the state received little rain in July, August and September.
It was worsened by two La Niña winters in a row, several climatologists and meteorologists said. During La Niña cycles, colder than normal sea surface temperatures in the eastern equatorial Pacific typically produce drier winters in Arizona. While Arizona recorded the second wettest July on record last summer, it wasn’t enough to make up for the winter deficits.
La Niña and El Niño — the opposite phenomenon, where warmer temperatures in the eastern equatorial Pacific tend to cause wetter winters in Arizona — are naturally occurring phenomena. But some scientists believe they may become more intense or frequent or both as a result of climate change, although the connection is not clear.
“The drought expansion and intensification that we’ve had across the country this past winter is largely due to La Niña,” Pugh said. “And the drought we’re seeing in the western U.S. is consistent with what we would expect in a warming climate.”
In Arizona, moderate and severe drought levels are increasing, with areas of extreme drought on the west side of the state, according to state climatologist Erinanne Saffell. Abnormally dry conditions, one level below what’s considered drought, have decreased in parts of central Arizona, she said.
The spring drought outlook shows continuing or developing dry conditions across all of Arizona.
Saffell noted that extreme drought levels fell this year compared with last year, with last year’s extreme drought at 85% of the state and this year’s at 6%.
“It’s not unexpected to see that the spring outlook is to continue drought, and perhaps even extend some of the drought,” she said. “More than likely, we’re going to be continuing these drought levels … it will definitely take more than one season, more than one wet year, to move out of drought.”
In-state reservoirs remain stable