Hopi ranchers get better way to monitor droughts

(Credit: Reinhard Schön via Wikimedia Commons)

A new system is designed to more accurately monitor and plan for drought across the 2,500-square-mile Hopi Reservation, a vast desert landscape that lacks long-term weather stations and thus reliable climate information.

The team, from the Hopi Tribe and the University of Arizona, found that weaving local, pasture-scale observations with conventional science-based observations can help tribal leaders and resource managers more precisely determine the need to close rangelands, haul water, or take other necessary actions.

“The decades-long drought across the US Southwest has shriveled crops, dried springs, forced ranchers to cull cattle, and caused unforeseen expenses for the Hopi people, many of whom are dryland farmers and ranchers dependent on seasonal rains for their food, traditions, and livelihoods,” says project leader Dan Ferguson, director of the Climate Assessment for the Southwest, or CLIMAS program, which is housed in the University of Arizona’s Institute of the Environment.

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“Traditional drought indicators such as total precipitation, temperature, and streamflow are useful but unavailable at the scale of decision-making on the Hopi Reservation. As a result, local observations may ultimately be more relevant for informing difficult decisions in response to unusually dry conditions,” Ferguson says.

Ferguson presented the team’s findings at the American Geophysical Union’s annual meeting in San Francisco.

Local observations

The drought monitoring system is designed to feed the local observations back into the community to improve local decisions amid evolving conditions and impacts. The tribe would compile locals’ observations of drought impacts, documented through a standardized process, and integrate them with regional climate information to produce quarterly summary reports for tribal leaders and other tribal members.

The tribe would also use the information in drought education programs and rainwater harvesting and other workshops, settings that can promote “more conversation among those affected by drought, more accurate monitoring, better decisions, and ultimately a more resilient landscape because you’re prepared for drought and can better respond to dry conditions,” Ferguson says.

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“Our process is simple, but effective,” Ferguson says. “We connect experts and knowledge from multiple disciplines to the planners and policymakers who must confront climate hazards like drought, and we work collaboratively to develop tools and adaptation strategies that best meet their needs.”

Sand dunes and failing crops

The drought project began in 2009, when the Hopi Tribe Department of Natural Resources, or HDNR, approached University of Arizona researchers with concerns that regional drought information did not depict observed impacts. These impacts include the formation of sand dunes that overrun fences and even roads, requiring costly removal; soil erosion; springs drying and livestock forage declining, which has spurred conflict among tribal members and stressed families that consume the food they grow; and reduced or failed corn, bean, and other crop harvests.

Throughout the project, Ferguson and colleagues Alison Meadow, a staff scientist at the Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions, and Michael Crimmins, associate professor and extension specialist in the department of soil, water & environmental science, convened focus groups and conducted interviews with HDNR staff and a cross section of Hopi society.

“We wanted to understand how the organization operated and how information was generated and used so that the system would fit within HDNR’s institutional framework,” Ferguson says. “We also wanted to understand how Hopi citizens experience drought, what types of information they want or use, and what they expect tribal leaders to do in terms of drought monitoring and planning.”

Among the HDNR’s assets are several range technicians who cover miles of the reservation in pickup trucks, continually assessing range conditions, checking in with ranchers and farmers, and monitoring a small rain gauge network. The agency also employs technicians who monitor water resources and track wildlife, further providing a picture of drought impacts on Hopi land.

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“The scale of the available regional climate information is just too large. You would never see specific impacts like degrading conditions on specific ranges on the reservation,” Ferguson says. “We proposed they leverage all this valuable, on-the-ground, existing information as a better way to be prepared for and respond to drought. Our idea was that the local observations are likely to be more useful for understanding nuanced impacts.”

Anna Masayesva, a member of the Hopi Tribe, joined the team for more than a year and piloted a two-page quarterly drought summary for Hopi lands that included local observations on the front and regional climate maps and highlights produced by the UA researchers on the back.

Beyond its immediate contribution to the Hopi, the project will yield key practices for how local communities in drought-vulnerable regions around the world can monitor climate conditions in a way that enables more informed decision-making, Ferguson says.

The work with the Hopi Tribe also contributed to a series of drought studies by the research team that yielded insights about drought patterns over the last 500 years and information on how specific measures that reveal the timing and intensity of rainfall can improve drought monitoring in arid regions.

The team also is completing work to better understand how soil moisture may be better modeled and is finalizing a report for the HDNR that contains specific recommendations for implementing a local drought impacts monitoring system.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration funded the project.

Source: Stephanie Doster for University of Arizona