By Chuck Slothower
Four Corners Business Journal
FARMINGTON The Four Corners' persistent drought doesn't look like it's going away anytime soon.
The National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center forecasts below-normal precipitation and above-normal temperatures through mid-April. Already, the region has been off to a dry start in 2013.
"We are definitely below normal on the snowpack so far this year," said Jennifer Palucki, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Albuquerque. She said the state's "trying to play a little catch-up."
Most of San Juan County was classified last week as in "severe" drought, with the western edge of the county bordering Arizona in the even more dire "extreme" drought. Southwest Colorado, including La Plata County, was in "severe" drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Farmington received 5.06 inches of precipitation in 2012, as measured at Four Corners Regional Airport. About 11 inches is normal, according to the National Weather Service.
Nationally, 2012 was the warmest year on record.
December brought a modest reprieve, with the Four Corners seeing precipitation close to historical averages. But the region is digging out of a hole, and the National Resources Conservation Service predicts stream flows this summer will be 50 to 89 percent of average.
The dry winter to date makes this summer's monsoon season critical, Palucki said.
San Juan County was one of 19 counties in New Mexico included in a federal natural disaster designation due to the ongoing drought.
The designation as a primary natural disaster area, made by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on Jan. 9, allows an extended deadline for farmers and ranchers to apply for emergency federal loans.
Drought has led to high prices for hay, impacting agriculture throughout the West.
Prices for alfalfa hay have risen to $230 to $260 per ton, and $8 to $10 per bale, according to a report Jan. 24 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Supplies are shortening with many producers holding on to their remaining hay for their own winter feeding needs, the department said. Alfalfa production in Colorado is down approximately 10 percent or 255,000 tons from last year. Total hay production in the United States is also down 9 percent, which is the lowest production level of hay since 1964.
Ranchers have been culling their herds as a result of the drought. New Mexico ranchers have culled 60,000 mother cows, said Dalene Hodnett, spokeswoman for the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau.
"That's a significant loss, not just of cattle in the state, but their genetics," she said.
Cotton farmers are reacting to the drought by concentrating their water on fewer acres. They're also having to pump more water, which adds costs.
"All of those cumulative effects just continue on," Hodnett said.
Water storage systems are also showing effects of the drought.
Last week, Vallecito Reservoir east of Durango was at 78.7 percent of average water level. Lemon Reservoir was at 38.7 percent of average.
Ski areas are also hoping for more precipitation. Durango Mountain Resort reported a midway depth of 31 inches on Thursday. The mountain was 93 percent open.
Telluride Ski Resort reported a 25-inch base, and several runs were closed.
Wolf Creek Ski Area, east of Pagosa Springs, reported a 39-inch midway depth and a 46-inch summit base. Wolf Creek was 100 percent open.