ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico — Dark clouds swirled over much of central and western New Mexico on Monday and forecasters issued more warnings for heavy rain and flooding as communities tried to clean up following previous waves of damaging weather.
The latest flood watch covered more than 36,000 square miles from Albuquerque west to Gallup and north to Los Alamos and Taos. The National Weather Service says more than 1 million people live in the area and it includes more than a dozen airports and hundreds of miles of interstates and railroad tracks.
By Monday afternoon, travelers along Interstate 25 were greeted with huge columns of heavy rain as thunderstorms and lightning were reported across the region. Flood warnings were also issued for wildfire burn scars in the Santa Fe and Gila forests.
State emergency management officials have been keeping a close eye on the weather and have been in contact with counties that have been hit the hardest in recent days, including Taos, Rio Arriba and Sandoval.
Last week, heavy rains brought flooding to towns in eastern New Mexico and Albuquerque, where city workers have cleaned up most of the mess but were still adding up the costs and bracing for the next round of showers.
Michael Riordan, director of the city's municipal development department, estimated the damage at between $300,000 and $400,000. He said it could have been worse had the city not made improvements to ponds, storm drains and pumping equipment.
"This last storm really stressed that system out, but it showed that it worked and we saved about 5.5 million gallons of stormwater that would have otherwise gone into the neighborhoods of Martineztown and Santa Barbara," Riordan said.
In Algodones, just north of Albuquerque, rain caused a ditch to overflow and flood neighborhoods. Sandoval County officials on Monday unanimously approved an emergency declaration, allowing the county to apply for federal disaster funding.
Estevan Lujan, a spokesman with the state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said if the damage reports start to add up with continued rain and flooding, there's a possibility Gov. Susana Martinez could declare a statewide emergency.
"It depends on how it goes. And from our experience last year, the first couple of weeks aren't bad but then the ground gets saturated and that's when the flooding really starts to happen," Lujan said. "That's what we're really concerned about at this point."
New Mexico has been dealing with severe drought for the past four years. With the latest dose of monsoon moisture, the worst category of drought — exceptional drought — has disappeared from the state. Forecasters say the picture is expected to improve even more once the effects of the recent storms are calculated by federal drought experts.
The latest drought map shows less than one-fifth of the state in extreme drought. That's down from more than 34 percent just one week ago.
The National Weather Service says last month was the fourth wettest July on record for New Mexico, and the Albuquerque area in the first three days of August has recorded around 70 percent of the month's total average rainfall.
Still, forecasters say the Albuquerque area is about 8 inches behind normal over the past few years.
"Our short-term drought is really going away, so that part is good," meteorologist Jennifer Palucki said. "But if you look at the longer term, in 2011 and 2012, you can see that our deficits were pretty large."
Forecasters say the showers and thunderstorms are expected to ease up Tuesday, but New Mexico can expect the wet weather to return for the weekend.