It's official. Feb. 28 marked the driest 12-month period on record for the area, and there is no significant rainfall on the horizon. But local green thumbs are pulling through.
From March 2020 to February 2021, the National Weather Service recorded 3.58 inches of rainfall at Tucson International Airport – the area's official record location.
This year's winter was the 20th driest on record and followed last year's dismal monsoon season – the second-driest on record in nearly 100 years, just behind 1924.
Winter is typically the area's second-wettest season, but the Weather Service recorded just 0.98 inches of rainfall, 1.75 inches below normal. And the bulk of that came in January. So far, the Weather Service has reported 0.73 inches of precipitation for the first two months of 2021, all in January, and including a brief snowfall Jan. 26.
And then there's the heat.
Last summer broke multiple records on a near-daily basis, including the most triple-digit days. The Weather Service recorded the record-breaking 100th triple-digit day on Sept. 30. And the year threw in a few more triple digits on the following days for good measure.
The dry winter also came with above-average temperatures and erratic highs and lows. This winter was the 13th warmest on record, with an average high of 55.4 degrees. But the Weather Service recorded extremes of an 82-degree high on Feb. 20, to a 30-degree low on Jan. 10. This winter also recorded three freezing-low temperatures, down from seven in 2019-20, and none of them fell below 30 degrees.
But whether the lack of rainfall will continue is unknown.
Last year's monsoon season – June, July, August and September – gave the area 1.62 inches of rain. And 2019 wasn't much better, with the Weather Service recording 5.06 inches.
The Climate Prediction Center expects La Niña conditions to persist through April. La Niña is a cool-phase climate pattern that tends to cause droughts in the U.S. Southwest.
National Weather Service Meteorologist Aaron Hardin said the area wouldn't likely have a wet April through June. And as for this year's monsoon is too soon to predict.
"We can't really say if it will be above normal, normal or below normal rainfall-wise," he said. "Even when it gets closer, it's kind of a tough call to make. We're hoping that it's going to be better because we're in a really bad drought and rainfall deficit."
Green Valley Gardeners member Chuck Parsons said the heat and lack of rain affected Desert Meadows Park during the last year but not as bad as expected. Parsons is also the project coordinator for Desert Meadows.
Parsons said a typical bill at the park is $450-$500 per month. Last summer's water bills were $600 per month and still not keeping up with necessary watering.
Parsons said the park expanded the irrigation system to the east side of Anza Trail after seeing plants in the area struggle to stay alive. Volunteers hand-watered the plants before the irrigation system. But the lack of rain left made the task overwhelming last summer.
"There's a two-edged sword to this last year," Parsons said. "The weather didn't help us at all. But COVID actually did help us because so many people were using the park."
He said the influx of people looking for a safe and healthy outdoor option left their donation boxes full, and that provided the funding for the irrigation system.
Volunteers had 380 plants – clumps of wild grasses – that took a beating during the arid and hot year. Parsons said it's too early to tell how many won't recover.
"Typically, all they need is the monsoon rains to keep them healthy, but when that didn't happen...," he said. "We tried to do some overhead irrigation to keep them alive, but I had to say by the end of summer, I was holding my breath. I didn't know many of them would make it."
Desert Meadows uses a rain gauge to capture local rainfall amounts impacting their plants. Parsons said they measured 5 inches for all of 2020.
"That's so far below what we would typically get at the park," he said. "Eight would be considered a bad year for us at the park. When we got one inch in January, that was like a quarter of what we got all last year. We were feeling pretty good. The plants really responded to that one inch."
Unfortunately, the park lost plants along the Anza Trail. But a while back, the park turned to Westgate Garden Design owner Charlene Westgate for landscaping help with a water flow issue. P
arsons said volunteers used to expend hours clearing the Anza Trail after summer rains would wash out the area. Westgate used water harvesting landscaping to control the water and redirect it back onto the garden area rather than letting it flow away and washing out the trail.
Westgate started her business five years ago and learned water harvesting techniques in Tucson from the non-profit Watershed Management Group.
Westgate's ecological landscaping business steadily grew over the last three years. But she said business doubled this year as temperatures soared and the rain was scarce.
Westgate said a 1,000-square-foot roof will capture 500 gallons of water for every inch of rainfall. A homeowner would need to install a 500-gallon tank to capture the water for landscape irrigation. But in Green Valley, that's not a likely option.
Westgate said HOAs tend to ban residents from installing the tanks. Instead, she changes the terrain to keep rainwater flowing back to plants rather than giving it to storm drains.
"A lot of the work I'm doing is educating people that that's free water they're getting off their roof being sent into the street rather than being used for plants," she said.
The rain garden Westgate designed for Desert Meadows stopped the Anza Trail from being washed out every year and gave that portion of the park's plants a better chance to survive.
Desert Meadows received some hard-to-find jojoba bushes, which volunteers planted in the rain garden and on the trail's east side.
"We lost two on the east side of the Anza Trail, and the other two that are over there are like, 'Mercy, mercy, would somebody help me?'" Parsons said. "And over on the rainwater garden side, they look like they're flourishing. They grew and doubled in size. That's where it became obvious to me that we were going to have to do something to expand our water system."