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A flash flood killed a Grand Canyon visitor. Drought in the Southwest could be making monsoon flooding worse

By Hannah Gard and Judson Jones, CNN

Monsoon rains brought extreme flash flooding to the Southwest this week, causing at least one death and scenes of vehicles bobbing down roads like rafts on rapids.

More flash flooding may occur this weekend.

A flash flood in Grand Canyon National Park killed Rebecca Copeland, 29, of Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the Tatahatso Camp on the Colorado River, the National Park Service said in a press release. The flood injured four others who were hospitalized and in stable condition.

Experts say the historic Western drought is to blame.

The drought has ravaged the region for decades, leaving the soil less like a sponge and more like pavement.

“The moisture isn’t absorbed into the soil as much and all of that water is running off and that is what leads to the roadways and flooding of people’s properties,” National Weather Service Flagstaff meteorologist Tim Steffen said.

Urban areas with plentiful concrete and little drainage can easily experience flash flooding events when heavy rain falls in a brief period of time. Videos of cars floating down brown floodwater rapids surfaced Wednesday after the extreme flooding in Flagstaff.

“We had widespread heavy rainfall across the Flagstaff area on Wednesday that led to flash flooding and some closures of area roadways. That is our big concern every monsoon season,” Steffen said.

“These types of intense, local rain events happen each summer, but often in unpopulated areas,” said Michael Crimmins, climate science extension specialist for Arizona Cooperative Extension. “The impacts are quite large when they occur in populated areas like Flagstaff.”

Flagstaff been preparing for flash flooding events since the Museum fire north of the city in 2019 left a large burn scar. In the following monsoon seasons, there was little rainfall, creating flash flooding problems in the area.

Drought-driven wildfires worsen flooding

Arizona saw two massive wildfires devour the hillsides outside of Phoenix earlier this year, and eight large fires burning over 60,000 acres are currently active in the state.

Wildfire burn scars can create a flash flood runway that can last for years.

“You can think of it as concrete where the water is not being absorbed into the soils; it’s all just running off,” Steffen said.

“Downstream of those fire scars all that water is running off, some debris as well from the fire, and that can clog culverts. Those areas are susceptible to flash flooding more so than those areas that haven’t been burned.”

Fires burn off plant matter that normally would hold soils in place during flooding events. Drought underlies the whole problem because there’s not much chance for vegetation to grow back and “keep things in place,” said Daniel Ferguson, director of the Climate Assessment for the Southwest (CLIMAS).

CLIMAS says climate change is affecting monsoon season.

“Warmer temperatures have expanded and intensified the North American monsoon ridge, resulting in fewer storms across Arizona during the peak of the monsoon season (late-July to mid-August),” according to the climate report for Coconino County, where Flagstaff is located.

Gov. Doug Ducey on Friday issued a declaration of emergency for Coconino County, making up to $200,000 available for response efforts.

Although storms will be less frequent, they may be more forceful. As the air heats up, it is able to hold more water, leading to heavier downpours and more flash flooding potential than typical monsoon thunderstorms in the past.

Each year more people are killed by flash flooding than lightning, with the average being 88 deaths according to the NWS.

“Most people fail to realize the power of water. For example, 6 inches of fast-moving flood water can knock you off your feet,” the NWS warns.

Monsoon rains and the water crisis

As the 26th year of historic drought leaves most of Arizona in extreme to exceptional drought conditions, rainfall is a welcome addition to the weekly weather forecast. The rain reduces soaring temperatures and provides brief relief from the relentless sun.

But previous years of scant rainfall and recent record-breaking heat have proven detrimental to the Southwest.

“What has contributed to the current drought, especially here in Northern Arizona, is two of the driest monsoons on record in 2019 and 2020. That created a problem,” Steffen said.

Moisture in any form can help the drought by relieving strained greenery and soils. The bulk of Arizona’s yearly rainfall occurs during the monsoon season.

“This is typically when we receive a lot of our precipitation during the year, and winter, so it’s very important that we have a good monsoon season because it does help quell some of the drought problems,” Steffen said.

The 2021 monsoon season has already given some areas of Arizona more rainfall than during the entire 2020 season, according to the NWS. Flagstaff has seen over an inch more rain than it did all last year’s season.

However, the rain is not doing much to replenish reservoirs that are faltering because of the winter season snow drought and record heat waves.

“All rainfall helps improve our water situation although runoff from summer monsoon rain rarely produces a significant improvement in reservoir levels,” said said Shauna Evans, spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR).

“Monsoon rain however can help rehydrate our soils, which helps get snowmelt runoff into the reservoirs. Also, some portion infiltrates into the ground and replenishes the aquifers.”

But monsoons rains can simply be a short-term fix to a long-term problem.

“In terms of hydrological drought, we really do need to have widespread cool season precipitation, particularly snowfall,” said NWS Phoenix meteorologist Larry Hopper.

“The snow melts into the reservoir which helps improves the water supply, which is a major component of hydrological drought. Monsoon, you don’t usually capture as much rainfall because it’s not as widespread.”

Monsoon season rainfall is typically sporadic in nature, with bursts of downpours in some areas while other areas remain dry. Widespread drought alleviation is difficult unless an active monsoon season drenches the region.

The Southwest will see more monsoonal moisture this weekend bringing heavy rainfall.

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“Instances of flash flooding will remain a concern throughout parts of Arizona and New Mexico into the weekend. Additional isolated rainfall totals up to 1 inch are possible today across central and southeastern Arizona, where Flash Flood Watches have been issued to highlight the potential hazard,” according to the Weather Prediction Center.

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