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Map shows Arizona free of short-term drought

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Arizona is out of drought for the first time in nearly 10 years.

The mosaics of yellow, orange and red that highlight the location and intensity of drought in Arizona disappeared this past week from the U.S. Drought Monitor, a map produced by the National Drought Migration Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

And while that sounds promising, experts say it’s not a sign that all is well with water in the state or that people aren’t grappling with long-term drying trends.

“For meteorologists, that’s a statement of where we are now, but it’s not a statement of the future, of where we’re going,” said Brian Klimowski, who heads the National Weather Service in Flagstaff. “It looks like we’re headed in a good direction and should maintain the status for a while, but the weather can be quite fickle.”

The map is updated every Thursday, factoring in precipitation, temperatures and impacts on the land from the week before.

Nationwide, about 4% of the U.S. is in moderate to extreme drought, one of the smallest footprints since the drought monitor was created 20 years ago. Conditions across much of the West also have improved over the past year.

Nevada and Utah are free of drought. New Mexico has improved, but still has a large pocket of moderate, long-term drought along the western part of the state. Some ranchers in eastern New Mexico reported hauling water for livestock and poorer conditions for crops and pasture grass.

Above-average snow and rainfall, along with cooler temperatures into the spring helped lift Arizona out of short-term drought. Reservoirs that people rely on for drinking water and recreation have been rising quickly. Still, the melting mountain snowpack won’t fill all of them, including Lake Mead on the Arizona-Nevada border that both states heavily rely on for drinking water and agriculture.

City planners, federal and tribal governments and ranchers use the map to respond to drought or determine who is eligible for drought relief. It doesn’t give an indication of long-term water supplies.

The latest map is a stark change from this time last year when all of Arizona was in drought, most of it in the two most severe categories. Back then, dozens of horses died after getting stuck in a muddy stock pond in search of water on the Navajo Nation. The U.S. Forest Service had also banned the public from large swaths of four forests to lessen the chance of big wildfires.

Now, most of Arizona remains free of restrictions on campfires, smoking and target shooting. The Tonto National Forest east of metro Phoenix is the exception, implementing the first stage of restrictions last week, while a 63-square-mile wildfire is burning.

The drought conditions should hold until heavy rain starts falling next month during the monsoon season, said state climatologist Nancy Selover.

“It’s cause for celebration because it means the wildlife situation on the rangeland is doing better at this point, the forest is still wet so there’s probably a little less danger for wildfires,” she said. “So we’re hopeful we’ll get another wet winter.”

But experts are still advising caution.

“For one thing, the Southwest U.S. is a desert,” said Richard Heim, a meteorologist with the NOAA. “You don’t want to waste any water at any time.”

The last time Arizona was free of drought on the map was in late 2000 and into 2002, followed by an intense period of drought. More than one-third of Arizona was in extreme drought — the second-highest level— in July 2002. The state’s longest stretch of drought was from August 2009 until last week, according to the drought monitor.

A small portion of the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona, representing less than 5% of the state, remains abnormally dry.

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