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Regional Drought Update Date
December 16, 2022
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Drought Status Update

Drought Update for the Intermountain West


DEWS Regions:
Update Status:

NIDIS and its partners will issue future drought status updates for the Intermountain West as conditions evolve.

Winter snowpack is off to a great start. More is needed to improve long-term drought conditions.

Key Points

  • Most of the Intermountain West experienced a cool and wet November. 
  • Exceptional (D4) drought has dropped to less than 0.5% of the region, persisting in central Utah and far northeastern Colorado. 
  • The area in severe (D2) to exceptional (D4) drought is at its lowest in two years.
  • NOAA’s seasonal outlook for January–March 2023 shows a warmer and drier-than-normal season ahead for the Southwest.
Current Conditions
U.S. Drought Monitor Conditions: Intermountain West | December 13, 2022

Current U.S. Drought Monitor map for the Intermountain West Drought Early Warning System (DEWS) region with data valid for December 13, 2022. The U.S. Drought Monitor is updated each Thursday to show the location and intensity of drought across the country.

U.S. Drought Monitor Categories
Value Map Hex Color
D0 - Abnormally Dry #ffff00
D1 - Moderate Drought #ffcc99
D2 - Severe Drought #ff6600
D3 - Extreme Drought #ff0000
D4 - Exceptional Drought #660000
Main Stats
0%
of Arizona is in extreme (D3) drought
4.4%
of Colorado is in extreme (D3) to exceptional (D4) drought
3.7%
of New Mexico is in extreme (D3) to exceptional (D4) drought
31.1%
of Utah is in extreme (D3) to exceptional (D4) drought
6.5%
of Wyoming is in extreme (D3) drought

Current Drought Conditions and Outlook

U.S. Drought Monitor Conditions

  • Exceptional (D4) drought persists in central Utah and northeastern Colorado. 
  • 8% of the region is experiencing Extreme (D3) drought or worse, the lowest amount since August 2020.
  • Extreme (D3) drought conditions have been in place in this region since May 2020.
  • Moderate (D1) or worse drought has been in the region since August 2009.

November Temperatures and Precipitation

  • November was another cooler-than-normal month for the Intermountain West.
    • Statewide November monthly temperature rankings:
      • Arizona: 15th coolest November and coolest since 2000
      • Colorado: 29th coolest November and coolest since 2000
      • New Mexico: 29th coolest November and coolest since 2000
      • Utah: 14th coolest November and coolest since 2000
      • Wyoming: 19th coolest November and coolest since 2003
  • Precipitation in November was generally average to below average across the Intermountain West, with the exception of the Great Basin and Wasatch regions of western and northern Utah.

Departure from Normal Temperature

In November 2022, temperatures across the Intermountain West were near- to below-normal.
Departure from normal temperature (ºF) from November 1–30, 2022. Source: High Plains Regional Climate Center.

Departure from Normal Precipitation

The Intermountain West had normal to a little below normal precipitation through November. One stand-out exception is western and northern Utah.
Departure from normal precipitation (inches) from November 1–30, 2022. Source: High Plains Regional Climate Center.

Snowpack

  • Winter precipitation is essential for ameliorating drought in the Intermountain West. Winter snowpack acts as a natural reservoir that adds water to western rivers and streams during the spring melt. 
  • As of December 15, the Upper Colorado River Basin had an average of 114% of normal snow water equivalent for this time of year. The lower Colorado River basin was at 118% of normal.
  • Snowpack in New Mexico and eastern Arizona is below average for this point in the season; the snow water equivalent for the Rio Grande Basin is at only 69% of the 1991–2020 median. 
  • It’s too early in the season to anticipate the final snowpack for the year. For the Upper Colorado River Basin, the snowpack usually peaks around April 8 (118 days from the writing of this report).

Snow Water Equivalent Percent of Median: Intermountain West

As of December 15, 2022, the Upper Colorado River Basin was at 114% of median snow water equivalent (compared to 1991–2020), and the Lower Colorado River Basin was at 118% of median.
Snow Telemetry (SNOTEL) snow water equivalent (SWE) values for watersheds in the Intermountain West as a percentage of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) 1991–2020 median. Valid December 15, 2022.

Snow Water Equivalent in the Upper Colorado

In the Upper Colorado River Basin, snowpack usually peaks around April 8. Current snow water equivalent in the region is slightly above the median for this time of year.
Snow water equivalent (inches) in the Upper Colorado Region, showing the historical range of statistical shading breaks at 10th, 30th, 50th, 70th, and 90th percentiles, the median (green line), and the current water year (black line). Source: USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

    Forecasts and Seasonal Outlooks: Late December 2022

    • According to the Climate Prediction Center's outlook for the last half of December: 
      • Temperature: Late December is likely to be warmer than normal for the western U.S., including Utah and Arizona. There is an equal chance of above- or below-normal temperatures for Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico.
      • Precipitation: Odds slightly favor a wetter-than-normal conditions for this time of year for northern Utah and Wyoming. Odds also favor below-normal precipitation for New Mexico and Arizona.

    Temperature Outlook: December 23–29, 2022

    From December 23rd to 29th, odds favor warmer than normal temperatures for the western US and cooler than normal temperatures for the eastern US.
    Temperature outlook for December 23–29, 2022, showing the probability (percent chance) of above-normal, below-normal, or near-normal conditions. Source: NOAA Climate Prediction Center.

    Precipitation Outlook: December 23–29, 2022

    From December 23rd to 29th, odds slightly favor a wetter than normal December for northern Utah and Wyoming. Odds also favor below normal precipitation for New Mexico and Arizona.
    Precipitation outlook for December 23–29, 2022, showing the probability (percent chance) of above-normal, below-normal, or near-normal conditions. Source: NOAA Climate Prediction Center.

    3-Month Outlooks for January–March 2023

    Seasonal forecasts for January–March show a warmer and drier-than-normal winter for southern Arizona and southern New Mexico. There are only weak odds favoring cooler/wetter weather for far northern Wyoming.

    January–March Temperature Outlook

    From January to March 2023, odds favor above-normal temperatures across Arizona, New Mexico, and southern Utah, with equal chances elsewhere in the Intermountain West.
    Seasonal temperature outlook for January–March 2023, showing the probability (percent chance) of above- or below-normal conditions. Source: NOAA Climate Prediction Center.

    January–March Precipitation Outlook

    From January to March 2023, odds favor below-normal precipitation across most of the Intermountain West region, except for Wyoming, northern Utah, and the northwestern corner of Colorado.
    Seasonal precipitation outlook for January–March 2023, showing the probability (percent chance) of above- or below-normal conditions. Source: NOAA Climate Prediction Center.

    Seasonal Drought Outlook for December 15, 2022–March 31, 2023

    • With the Climate Prediction Center's seasonal outlook strongly favoring below-normal precipitation for Arizona and New Mexico, consistent with La Niña conditions in the Pacific Ocean, the seasonal drought outlook shows continued or returning drought for the region for winter.
    • Drought improvement is forecast for Wyoming.

    December 15–March 31 Drought Outlook

    From December 15, 2022 to March 31, 2023, drought is predicted to persist where it already exists in the Intermountain West, with drought developing across Arizona and much of New Mexico and Colorado.
    U.S. seasonal (3-month) drought outlook, predicting where drought is likely to persist, improve, develop, or be removed from December 15, 2022 to March 31, 2023. Source: NOAA Climate Prediction Center.

    State-Based Conditions and Impacts

    Arizona

    • November was a dry month for the state (0.49 inch of precipitation, with -0.36 inch departure from average). The first two weeks of December started strong with above-average precipitation over much of the state, but outlooks show the remainder of December trending dry.
    • Snow water equivalent (SWE) for the Lower Colorado River basin is currently 127% of median (as of December 15, 2022), with SWE well above average from Flagstaff and along the Mogollon Rim (central Arizona), to average or slightly above average in the White Mountains (eastern Arizona). 
    • 61% of the state now has either no drought or abnormally dry (D0) conditions. Severe (D2) drought has decreased to only 8% of the state, mostly in northwestern and north-central portions of the state. Moderate (D1) drought decreased to 31%, largely remaining in the western and northern sections of the state.  
    From December 1 to 14, 2022, much of Arizona experienced near- to above-average precipitation, except for a few smaller regions.
    December to date percent of average precipitation for Arizona. Most of the state began December with average to above-average precipitation. Source: Western Regional Climate Center.

    Colorado

    • Colorado was 2.2 degrees cooler than the 20th-century average, and 3–4 degrees cooler than the 1991–2020 normal during November. Cool conditions, especially in winter, temporarily arrest most drought impacts.
    • A robust snowpack is the best way for Colorado to experience lasting drought relief. Current basin-wide snowpack numbers range from 74%–127% of normal, but there is still plenty of time for these numbers to get better or worse
    • Reservoir storage entering this cold season is below the 10th percentile for Blue Mesa Reservoir: the largest reservoir in Colorado. McPhee Reservoir and John Martin Reservoir, two of Colorado’s other important, large reservoirs, are storing much below normal volumes this winter season.
    Basin-wide snow water equivalent values in Colorado range from 74% to 127% of normal. Rio Grande and Arkansas basins are below normal, as of December 13, 2022.
    SNOTEL snow water equivalent (SWE) across Colorado basins as a percent of the 1991–2020 median. Valid December 13, 2022. Source: Natural Resource Conservation Services Colorado Snow Survey.

    New Mexico

    • While precipitation in New Mexico in winter is usually quite a bit lower than what is received in the monsoon months, winter snowpack in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado mountains is essential for the state's hydrology.
    • Water year to date precipitation has been lower than normal across much of northern New Mexico, including the San Juan River basin. Current Snowpack in the San Juan River Basin is 86% of normal.  
    • New Mexico has drought conditions ranging from no drought (Rio Arriba County) to exceptional (D4) drought (Union County).
    • Some long-term drought signals, such as surface water storage, are showing the effects of decades of drought. This is particularly true along the Rio Grande where Caballo and Elephant Butte reservoirs are at 22% and 10% of capacity, respectively. 
    From October 1 to December 15, 2022, precipitation has been lower than normal across much of northern New Mexico, including the San Juan River Basin.
    Departure from normal precipitation (inches) for New Mexico since the start of Water Year 2023 (October 1–December 15, 2022). Source: High Plains Regional Climate Center.

    Utah

    • Active weather has built up an ample snowpack across the state that currently stands at 155% of median for this time of year and 35% of the median April peak.
    • With frozen soils locking in soil moisture content until springtime, the current soil moisture conditions across the state stand at near-normal amounts. This promises improved spring runoff efficiency over the recent drought years where dry soils limited the efficiency of spring runoff and reservoir recharge.
    • Current statewide reservoir levels stand at 43% of capacity, reflecting the long-term drought impacts remain mostly unaffected by the last 6 months of above-average precipitation.
    Statewide snow water equivalent for Utah stands at 155% of median for this time of year, and 35% of the median April peak.
    Current snow water equivalent across the state (black line) along with the range of historical conditions (color spread) as well as the 2021 (orange line) and 2022 (blue line) water year observations. Source: USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
    Utah statewide reservoir levels are at 43% of capacity, as of December 13. Reservoirs at or under 20% of capacity includes the Upper and Lower Enterprise, Newton, Scofield, Yuba, Gunnison, Plute, Minersville, and Otter Creek resevoirs.
    Current Utah reservoir levels as a percent of capacity. Source: Utah Department of Natural Resources.

    Wyoming

    • Precipitation:
      • A strong winter storm hit Wyoming (and much of the Midwest) December 12–14 accompanied by high winds, causing road and school closures. Snowfall at the Wyoming Mesonet station at Sheridan was about 15 inches.
      • The snowfall brought snowpack totals to within a few percent of median for the Lower North Platte, Upper Green, Shoshone, and Bighorn Basins.  
      • The storm especially helped the eastern areas, which had generally been further below median. While the storm did help the South Platte River Basin, that area is still only at 50% of median.
      • Remaining basins in Wyoming are well above their median snow water equivalent for this date.
    • Soil Moisture:
      • The northwest and east have seen some degradations in the last 30 days, while the remainder of the state has remained largely unchanged.
    • Temperatures:
      • Mean temperatures across the state for the last 30 days were below average, except for small portions of Platte County.
      • East-central and southeastern Wyoming were mostly 0℉ to 3℉ below average.
      • The far west, along with the Bighorn Basin, had mean temperatures 6℉ to 9℉ below average.
      • The remainder of the Wyoming was 3℉ to 6℉ above average.
    • Drought:
      • The net change in drought status across the state over the last 30 days was minor. D0 (Abnormally Dry) was removed in Hot Springs and Washakie Counties, along with portions of Natrona, Johnson, and Sheridan Counties. Elsewhere, conditions remained the same.

    Snow Water Equivalent: December 8 vs. December 15

    As of December 8, snow water equivalent values in much of Wyoming (especially the eastern half of the state) were below normal.

    As of December 15 (after a strong winter storm on December 12 to 14) snow water equivalent values were near- to above-normal across much of Wyoming.
    Snow water equivalent (SWE) percentiles for December 8 (top) and December 15, 2022 (bottom). Source: Wyoming State Climate Office.

    For More Information

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    Prepared By

    Joel Lisonbee
    NOAA/National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS), Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES)

    Erin Saffell
    Arizona State Climatologist/Arizona State University

    Peter Goble
    Colorado Climate Center/Colorado State University

    Jon Meyer
    Utah Climate Center/Utah State University

    Tony Bergantino
    Water Resources Data System – Wyoming State Climate Office

    Special Thanks

    This drought status update is issued in partnership between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the offices of the state climatologist for Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. The purpose of the update is to communicate a potential area of concern for drought expansion and/or development within the Intermountain West based on recent conditions and the upcoming forecast. NIDIS and its partners will issue future drought updates as conditions evolve.