N3B Official Warns Of ‘Tinderbox’ Drought Conditions In Los Alamos County

Exceptional Drought conditions as of May 2021. Courtesy N3B


During a review of the Los Alamos National Laboratory storm water monitoring plan for Los Alamos National Laboratory last week, Amanda White, N3B/T2S Watershed Monitoring and Technical Services Project Manager, defined for participants in a virtual meeting, the seriousness of the current drought conditions in the area. N3B is the legacy waste cleanup contractor for LANL.

White noted that last year, the area was getting into the exceptional drought conditions currently being experienced and that it was “pretty abysmal for sample collection”.  She said this year, sampler activation began March 17 and ended April 5, which was an excellent time frame for activation, and that 133 site monitoring areas are active this year. White noted that there had been 16 remote telemetry triggering events as of May 24 but that there were no samples collected until a fairly large storm event the week ending May 30.

White said Los Alamos County is currently in “exceptional drought conditions” – a level of intensity of drought that was developed just for this current drought. She said the snow telemetry network that measures snowfall equivalent shows the upper Rio Grande Basin of New Mexico is at 3 percent of the median which is very, very low as well as the Sangre de Cristo Mountain range basin and the Pecos River Basin – all 3 percent of the median, which is way below average.

“If you’re familiar with hydrology in New Mexico and the Southwest, we get most of our water resources from snowpack. What’s recharging our aquifers and our rivers and our lakes is the snowpack so this is not a good situation,” White said.

She noted that right now the U.S. Drought Monitor places 60 percent of the Western States under severe, extreme or exceptional drought.

“The reason for this is two-fold. First, we have long-term drying fueled by human-caused climate change. Second, in the short-term, we have the La Nina event, in which cool Equatorial Pacific waters fail to fuel an ample fetch of moisture. It’s a fancy way of saying this La Nina event, this really large-scale climate pattern is affecting our local weather and it’s not allowing the amount of moisture to come into the region and the pattern doesn’t look quite like it would normally. We’re coming out of La Nina and fingers crossed, that we’ll get some rain and we’ll get some samples,” White said.

White said most basin snow water equivalent percentiles across the Western region, are well below normal for the period of record, (near and below the 65th percentile) especially in the Four Corners region (below the 5th percentile in Arizona and New Mexico. She said above-normal temperatures over much of the West in the past 60 days has resulted in rapid snow melt and because of the dry topsoil, much of that that melt water has not made it to the rivers, lakes and reservoirs because it’s being “sucked up by this extraordinarily dry soil”.

“Climate Prediction Center soil moisture is below the first percentile and NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) indicates severely depleted groundwater and remote sensing vegetation indices indicate severe vegetation stress,” White said. “If you’ve lived here a long time, it’s tinderbox conditions. Just a safety note, be careful out there, with anything that has a spark.”

Precipation statistics for Los Alamos National Laboratory from 2000 to 2021. Courtesy N3B

She said starting in 2019, Los Alamos County was in the beginning of the drought conditions and then progressed in 2020 throughout the pandemic with the whole County by October 2020 in exceptional drought conditions.

“And they have continued since then. Looking at annual precipitation across the Laboratory, the drought in 2001, 2002 and 2003 that caused a large-scale vegetation tree mortality and that was when the bark beetles came in and killed all the pinons – that was a severe, severe drought, and it persisted over three years. If you look at the 2018, 2019 and 2020, we’re getting into those types of conditions again. 2021 is way below average. A wet year would be something like 2015. An average would be somewhere in 2004-2005,” White said.