By Nick Worth
Historically, Navajo County averages about 14 inches of rain per year, while the U.S. average is 37 inches. The county’s snowfall is an average of 34 inches, as opposed to a U.S. average of 25 and the number of days with any measurable precipitation is 60 per year, whereas the U.S. average is 100 days.
Historical averages don’t mean a lot though, when your cattle tanks are dried up and you have to haul water for your livestock.
“It’s been a pretty dry winter and the prospects for spring aren’t very good,” said Holbrook rancher Bill Jeffers. “We need some good precipitation this spring to green things up.”
According to the most recent short-term report from the Arizona Drought Monitoring Technical Committee, “Three winter storms moved across Arizona in February, bringing significant rain and snowfall along the Mogollon Rim and northern Arizona.”
The report, dated Feb. 26, goes on to say the precipitation improved the short-term drought conditions all across the northern Arizona region, including northern Navajo County, where the drought status moved from “extreme drought” to “severe drought.” Northern Apache County also improved from “extreme” to “severe,” and Coconino County moved from “severe” to “moderate drought” conditions.
A long-term report, posted by the committee on Feb. 5 and based on data collected up through Dec. 31, stated that drought conditions worsened in some of the eastern watersheds, including the Little Colorado watershed. The report noted that fall and early winter storms were erratic over Arizona, and that most of the state received less than half the normal precipitation in October and November.
After a wet December, the report stated, storms developed into two tracks, either tracking south into northern Mexico, which brought some much-needed rainfall to western Arizona, or sweeping northward across southern Utah, which missed most of Arizona. The result left eastern Arizona much drier than average.
The long-term drought map shows far northern Navajo County “abnormally dry,” the far southern portion in the White Mountains as having “moderate” drought conditions and everything in between as “severe drought.”
The National Weather Service (NWS) in Flagstaff agrees in a drought report issued on Feb. 22 that begins, “Extreme drought persists in northern Apache and Navajo counties.”
The NWS report stated the late January and early February storms resulted in near or above-normal precipitation, and that the extreme drought area identified over northern Navajo and Apache counties has become smaller. It also made note of low reservoir and stock tank levels, and distressed vegetation in northern Navajo and Apache counties.
“Ninety percent of our cattle tanks are dry,” Jeffers said, but noted that on his ranch they have the ability to pump water through a pipeline to some of the cattle tanks to keep the stock watered.
Bob Flake of the Bar A Cattle Company in Snowflake said his ranch hasn’t yet been hit too hard by the drought.
“We’ve been lucky on the amount of rain we’ve gotten and when we got it,” Flake said. “Some ranchers have had to carry water out to the cattle. We have drinkers set up for the cattle and a well that sends water out to them.”
According to the NWS, the present spate of dry conditions started to develop during the summer of 2011, showed a brief improvement late in 2011 and then went back to very dry conditions, which have persisted through most of 2012 and into this year. The monsoon season, fall and early winter were also below average.
Jeffers said the area drought is not just a recent phenomenon, however.
“It’s been going on for several years,” he said. “We’ve cut down on cattle numbers for the last 20 years.”
Flake said his cattle numbers have also gone down over the past few years.
“Over time you just pull back on the number of cattle you’re running,” Flake said. He said some ranchers move their cattle to other ranges, either in the White Mountains, or perhaps in the desert near Phoenix and east Mesa.
Jeffers repeated that some spring rain is badly needed.
“Even a good snow would be great,” said Jeffers. “Snow this time of year melts fast and a lot of it goes into the ground.”
Rain gauges throughout Navajo County reported widely varying rainfall amounts since Jan. 1 of this year. Gauges in Show Low reported two inches in January, 1.35 inches in February and 1.03 inches from March 1-20. Gauges in Pinetop-Lakeside showed 3.46 inches in January, 2.21 inches in February and 1.57 inches March 1-20. Taylor rain gauges reported 0.84 inches in January, 0.65 inches in February and 0.60 inches so far in March.
A gauge at Schoens Dam near Taylor showed no precipitation for the past 90 days, while a gauge at Holbrook recorded 0.67 inches and a gauge at Joseph City measured 1.24 inches in the same time period.
According to the NWS, though, the outlook up through this coming May doesn’t hold out much hope for precipitation, with increased probabilities of above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation in northeastern Arizona.
The NWS report closes by stating that while some short-term improvements have been seen in the extreme drought area, a significant amount of additional precipitation is needed in order to replenish local water resources such as reservoirs and aquifers.
The NWS was scheduled to issue its next drought information March 21 online at weather.gov/flagstaff. Click on the drought link on the left side column under climate.
Jeffers noted that the drought maps available on the Internet show an area from Holbrook up through the Four Corners Area as being extremely dry.
“The entire state of Arizona is in a drought, but this area is extremely dry,” Jeffers said.
According to Flake, the range grasses can survive the drought.
“Range grasses are very resilient,” Flake said. “You can go through a number of rough years and think it may have killed the grasses off, but one good year will bring them back.”
He said the Bar A went through two very bad years recently, causing him to ship cattle off to Kingman.
“I thought for sure our grass would be wiped out and not come back,” Flake said. “Once you get water back, though, they come back.
“I think that’s the important part,” he continued. “Ranchers are pretty careful with their resources. Instead of letting the cattle grind those grasses into dust, we’ll find a different place for them.
“For the most part, around here, people won’t allow that to happen,” he said. “They’ll ship the cattle off, or sell them off. There are a lot of cattle that move from here to other ranges. That gives the ground a rest.
“Ranchers know if they abuse the ground, then they’re in trouble for years to come,” Flake said.
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By Nick Worth