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2002: Too dry even for desert
Phoenix ties record; least rain since '56

Shaun McKinnon
The Arizona Republic
January 3, 2003

Special report
A long, dry streak

So how dry was 2002?

As dry as it gets in Phoenix.

Just 2.82 inches of rain, barely more than the annual average for Death Valley, fell at Sky Harbor International Airport, tying the 1956 record for driest year ever.

The story was similar elsewhere in Arizona. Every rain gauge ended the year below normal, pushing the state deeper into a drought that has drained reservoirs, devastated forests and farms and raised the specter of another dangerous wildfire season.

The wait is now for help from El Nio, the winter storm turbocharger that has deposited nearly record amounts of rain and snow on northern California since November. So far, it has been a big El No-show in Arizona. Although it's known for late arrivals here, climate experts are giving it only a 50-50 chance of putting a serious dent in the state's long dry spell.

"It's not anything to bank on at this point," said Andrew Ellis, an Arizona State University climatologist. "If anything, it's going to be a middle-of-the-road El Nio, good but nothing spectacular. The problem out here in the West is that it takes several years to get into a drought, and it usually takes several years to get out of it."

The past year was definitely one of those that got us into it. Measurable rain fell at Sky Harbor just 18 times during all of 2002. Only eight times did more than one-tenth of an inch fall. No rain fell at all in February and May. Yuma received just 0.03 of an inch all year, a spattering in December that broke a 29-month rainless streak.

Even in a desert, 2.82 inches of rain won't cut it.

"The desert looks terrible," said Patrick Quirk, a cactus horticulturist at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. "A lot of the plants went leafless this year, and the cactuses are looking droopy."

The native plants are resilient enough to bounce back after a normal winter, Quirk said, but should the drought persist, even some of the hardiest specimens could begin to die by summer.

Which brings us back to winter. Ellis said it's common for Arizona to remain drier than surrounding states during November and December. In 1997-98, the last time El Nio influenced the state's weather, the real moisture didn't show up until February and March, when a total of 4.24 inches of rain fell.

On the other hand, he said, "we've not gotten off to a great start this year." The storms have veered mostly north and extreme south, leaving Arizona with the leftovers. Sky Harbor received less than half of its normal precipitation during the last three months of the year.

El Nio has soaked northern California and buried the northern Sierra in snow. One Sierra ski resort reported an upper base of 12 feet and total snowfall of 21 feet. A storm this past weekend left more than 2 feet at Tahoe City, Calif.

Kelly Redmond, regional climatologist at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, said he's intrigued by the split in storm tracks so far, an unusual twist to an El Nio winter.

"El Nio isn't always a savior on a white horse," he said. "It may be some years that the moisture goes too far south. This time there are the two tracks: one north, one south. That can leave Arizona in limbo."

He said if he were managing the state's depleted reservoirs, "I would be nervous, but there's also hope that it could change and bring at least a normal or somewhat above-normal year."

The coming weeks will bring little relief, according to the National Weather Service, which is calling for nearly record temperatures and sunny skies. But over the forecast horizon are hints of some moisture, said Tony Haffer, chief meteorologist in Phoenix.

He recalled the late start in 1998, calling the delay a "typical signature in Arizona El Nio years."

"But even if this turns out to be true, it's not necessarily going to be wet enough to break the drought," Haffer said. "We have a deficit of moisture to catch up on."

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