Arizona is still in a 27-year drought but recent rain has let nature catch up. The bad news: Record monsoon rains could lead to a worse-than-normal fire season. The good news: Some groundwater levels have been restored and long-dry springs reinvigorated
How can you help? Capture the rain and advocate for city policies that don't treat storm water as a nuisance.
After one of the wettest summers on record, and record winter rains making our chilly season even chillier, all of Arizona is still facing decades-long drought conditions.
Bottom line: Record monsoon rains did little to move our desert state out of a 27-year long-term drought that’s also the worst in the Southwest since 800 A.D.
Yep, from Yuma to Tucson to Phoenix to Flagstaff and every lovely Arizona town in between: You got long-term drought.
Now, here’s the thing about Arizona, because there’s always a thing about Arizona: Our extreme weather leads experts to talk about long-term drought conditions and short-term drought conditions.
Here’s how the Arizona State Climate Office breaks it down: “Since Arizona has an arid and semi-arid climate, extremely variable precipitation is normal. Drought is instead characterized by a string of dry years, occasionally interrupted by a wet year or two.”
“There’s been ebb and flow — it’s kind of a roller coaster,” said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Winter rain means Arizona’s drought conditions have eased, but not enough to lift any corner of the state out of what the center categorizes as “abnormally dry” conditions to increasingly severe drought conditions.
That means forage is limited, soil is dry and fire risk increases across much of Arizona with more serious conditions across some of the state, according to recent predictions from the National Integrated Drought Information System.
About 56.7% of the state is in “moderate drought” conditions. That means plants are stressed, hillsides are brown, stock ponds and creeks are nearly dry and some springs are dry.
But we live in a state that contends with summer sayings that urge Arizonans to just get over it. It’s a dry heat. Ummm, but have you been to Arizona in July? It actually feels like if you go outside you’re stepping into that Elmo-on-fire GIF.
Fry an egg and keep reading for what’s on our AZ weather horizon
So what’s an Arizonan to do when it rains on Christmas and keeps raining in early January, but then the first month of 2022 turns into the 27th driest January in the past 128 years? And there’s no relief from long-term drought?
We look at the fry-an-egg-on-it-and-eat-it, sunny side of things.
That means we heed warnings about dangerous fire conditions and cozy-up in our winter jackets, boots, scarves and hats when it’s in the 60s. We pull out the shorts and T-shirts when suddenly, it’s 80 degrees in February.
And we appreciate the fact that, according to the national drought monitoring reports, none of Arizona is facing exceptional drought conditions and only 5.1% of the state is in extreme drought conditions, the most dangerous and the second most dangerous drought measures, respectively.
In 2021, Tucson experienced the fifth warmest year on record, according to the Tucson National Weather Service. That ranks the city just below Mother Earth, which saw her sixth warmest year on record dating back to 1880, according to scientists with the National Centers for Environmental Information.
Phoenix was tied for the 10th warmest year on record, while Yuma was tied for the eighth warmest, according to the NWS. (We interrupt this weather story for a fun fact for weather nerds like us: According to the NWS: “Records for Phoenix began in 1896, first taken in downtown and since moved to Sky Harbor airport in the 1950s. Records in Yuma began in 1878.”)
Rob Howlett, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service, said the winter forecast is affected by the presence of La Niña, a meteorological event characterized by cooler-than-usual ocean waters west of South America.
While December and January have seen record winter showers, weather experts are predicting we will see limited rain as we move closer to spring. That means Arizona could slip into more serious drought conditions.
Abnormally dry areas of Arizona, are “anticipated to see drought development into spring,” Fuchs said, adding that the national drought monitor does not identify the intensity of drought conditions on the horizon for the state.
Rains produced vegetation spurt that could spur spring wildfires
Mike Crimmins, a professor and extension specialist at the University of Arizona, said a long, dry season also means an increased likelihood of wildfires in the spring. While it seems counterintuitive, the rain of the most recent monsoon is partly contributing to that possibility.
“The desert is typically not very productive,” Crimmins said. “You don’t see the vegetation grow up like we saw it this summer very often.”
The lush greenery dries out and turns crispy brown, leading to an abundance of dry plant fuel across the desert.
Despite this, Crimmins says that the summer rains did a lot of good for Tucson’s desert, especially coming off another La Niña last winter and a drier than usual monsoon in 2020.
“We were really in trouble last spring, and then we had this crazy monsoon season, and it’s almost like nature was trying to catch up,” Crimmins said. “And honestly, if you look at the math and the statistics, we did. For the whole water year, we solved a drought that showed up in two seasons with one season.”
While those rains couldn’t fully reverse the region’s long-term drought conditions, they did restore some groundwater levels and reinvigorate long-dry springs.
What you can do to help
Crimmins said that having an awareness of our local climate and limited water resources is key to preserving them, and individual and community efforts should span both wet and dry years and seasons.
“We’re really innovating in Tucson in ways that a lot of the rest of the West is learning from,” he said.
He added that in some cities stormwater has traditionally been treated as a nuisance, pushed out of town to evaporate. That’s not the case in Tucson, he said, where communities are rethinking how they engage with stormwater, capturing run-off in basins to recharge the aquifer and storing it to use in dry summer months.
In 2005, Tucson officials published a resource manual and passed an ordinance to support water harvesting for use by developers proposing new projects and for city projects.
“The manual is primarily directed toward commercial developments, but the concept designs and configurations are easily adapted for residential lot use,” according to Tucson’s webpage on water harvesting.
Rainwater harvesting is one way community members can help to conserve and manage water use throughout the year, Crimmins said. By using collected water instead of tap water for irrigation, watering potted plants, and other purposes, people can help to preserve primary water sources, many of which date back thousands of years, for future generations.
Through collection, that water becomes a resource to solve problems during dry periods rather than a problem to be solved.
Executive Editor Dianna M. Náñez contributed to this story