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Dealing with Drought in the Caribbean Area

Cows on a futile quest for greener pastures in Villalba, PR.

NRCS y Sequía: Invirtiendo en la Conservación Recuperación del Agua (PDF, 302 KB)

In 2015, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) were in the grip of a historic drought. Eastern Puerto Rico, eastern parts of St. Thomas and St. John, and the entire islands of Vieques, Culebra, and St. Croix suffered through over three months without significant rainfall. Over 86% of Puerto Rico and the USVI were under a water deficit. These extreme conditions damaged crops, weakened and killed livestock, and increased the threat of wildfires. Once again Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands experienced harsh drought conditions from March - July 2020. A Drought Declaration was placed in effect for the USVI and was operational as of August 1, 2020. This is a first for the St. Thomas-St. John district, and qualified the Virgin Islands for the USDA Livestock Forage Disaster Program which offers payments to eligible livestock producers.

For the last 5 years, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have experienced uncommonly dry weather. The resulting water deficit has impacted cash crops, including plantains, root crops, bananas, and coffee in the uplands, and livestock in the eastern part of Puerto Rico and on St. Croix. 

September 2 2015 Drought Monitor Map for Puerto Rico.

DROUGHT DATA
  • Over 86% of Puerto Rico and the USVI were under a water deficit.
  • Almost 25% of Puerto Rico fell under extreme drought and 45% wa under severe drought.
  • 2015 was the third driest period in Puerto Rico since 1898. The drought  persisted through the end of the year.
  • Puerto Rico experienced the strictest water rationing in its history. The island’s main reservoir shrank so much that many areas only received water only 1 out of every 3 or 4 days.
  • Puerto Rico’s severe drought forced businesses to temporarily close, public schools to cancel breakfast service and people to find creative ways to stay clean amid sweltering temperatures (US News & World Report).
  • Severe drought in St. Croix parched pastures, dried up ponds, and killed a large number of livestock.

Although little can be done to control rainfall and storm events, technical experts at NRCS can help producers in Puerto Rico and the USVI apply science-based conservation solutions to build resilience in their operations and mitigate against the impacts of drought. Below are examples of conservation practices NRCS can help farmers install to deal with the impacts of drought.

Caribbean Area NRCS has also added several conservation practices we have not traditionally used in the past, including Water Harvesting Catchments and Underground Outlets to help producers better manage water deficiencies in arid areas and expand livestock watering. We are also trying to determine how we can implement irrigation practices for the humid uplands, which is a challenge because of requirements to document irrigation history. We need producers's help to build documentation based on how much and how often they are hauling water and watering crops by bucket and/or hoses in order to get the needed water to animals and crops at the right time.

Images of Drought in St. Croix, USVI - August 2015
Parched pastures and hillsides at ART Farm on southshore.Extended drought has led to parched pastures and wildfires along the south shore of St. Croix. Dry livestock watering pond, for goats, pond in Catherines Rest, St. Croix.A livestock watering pond in Catherine's Rest, used primarily for goats, has all but dried up. FSA District Director, Mark Carlton, visits Frank Bermudez Farm to inspect starving cattle-081115
FSA District Director, Mark Carlton (right), visits with a cattle farmer to view drought conditions and discuss potential relief measures for his starving cattle.
Sejah Farms, emaciated and pregnant sheep-(8/11/15.Pregnant and hungry, sheep normally pastured are now confined for feeding. Steve Harry goat farm-denuded pasture & trees stripped bare-081115Goats have denuded the pastures & stripped the trees bare on a mid-island farm.

CroplandFarmers use Crotalaria juncea (Sunn hemp) as a cover crop.

The goals of rain-fed cropping systems are to:

  • increase the amount of water that is absorbed into the soil (infiltration),
  • minimize the loss of moisture through evaporation,
  • improve soil water availability, and
  • increase water use efficiency through improved soil management.

Conservation practices such as cover crops and crop residue management help the soil absorb raindrop energy and slow runoff, allowing more time for water infiltration. Riparian forest buffers trap sediment, organic matter, nutrients and pesticides in surface runoff from agricultural lands bared by drought, and reduce excess nutrients and other chemicals in shallow ground water flow.

NRCS can help farmers conduct comprehensive irrigation water management assessments to identify water application efficiency concerns by comparing crop water uptake to the existing irrigation system. Assessments help produce more efficient irrigation system designs using NRCS standards and specifications to increase efficient use of available water. Benefits for farmers include higher yields, as well as reduced water demands, environmental impacts and costs. Water management practices provide farmers and ranchers with tools to improve water resource management, monitoring and crop and pasture quality. Better management means better efficiency, more water availability, and lower costs.

Pastureland

Well-managed, healthy pastures that apply rotational grazing increase soil cover to improve water use efficiency and help to maintain pastures during drought conditions. Grazing land mechanical treatment reduces water runoff and increases infiltration. Silvopasture can provide long-term erosion control, improve water quality and reduce heat stress. Exclusion fences keep grazing animals out of water bodies to help protect sensitive stream banks and shorelines weakened by drought, and maintain or improve water quality.

Dairy cows gather around a water trough in a Puerto Rico pasture.Livestock

Providing enough water is essential for livestock production. Insufficient high-quality water will quickly reduce animal performance, so producers are challenged to provide livestock with plenty of good, clean water and shade during times of drought. This is why many producers are now opting to install and manage more efficient livestock watering equipment. Water availability is critical, especially when adopting year-round grazing. Water can be supplied by ponds, wells, springs, and water conveyance systems. Water can also be harvested from farm buildings’ roof runoff and stored in tanks or cisterns.

FEEDING LIVESTOCK IN DRY WEATHER

Dry weather can be stressful on livestock. Pastures and brush dry out, are less nutritious and have little or no protein. Animals need more water to digest dry grass.

These conditions can lead to weaker animals that do not grow, cannot provide milk for their young, and are more susceptible to disease and worms.

In the dry season, it is important and necessary to provide additional nutritious feed for animals, especially protein. The dry season comes every year so prepare and plan ahead.

How will you provide the proper feed for your herd?

  • Cut and carry young, green grass and bush and provide quality hay.
  • Provide a complete grain with 16% protein (not just corn).
  • Provide molasses for additional calories.
  • Deworm your animals and spray for ticks as recommended.
  • And, of course, make sure there is plenty of water available.

Information provided by the V.I. Department of Agriculture Veterinary Services Division, 340-778-0998.

NRCS can help producers design and install more efficient livestock watering systems. Spring development collects water from springs or seeps to provide improved quantity and/or quality of water for livestock, wildlife or other agricultural uses. Watering system designs provide better distribution of livestock watering facilities to boost pasture and rangeland use.

NRCS Assistance

NRCS offers technical and financial assistance to Caribbean Area producers to conserve water, improve soil and water quality, and adapt to climate change through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) or as part of special Farm Bill initiatives, such as the StrikeForce for Rural Growth & Opportunity.

In FY 2015, NRCS helped Caribbean Area farmers install over 300 drought-mitigation practices to improve over 6,240 acres of farmland. Since 2004, in response to frequent drought and farmers’ concerns about the long-term viability and availability of the region’s aquifers for agriculture, NRCS has helped to design and fund 23 irrigation water reservoirs with a storage capacity of 103 million gallons (Mgals) through EQIP Special Initiatives. NRCS has also planned and obligated funds to build 23 additional irrigation reservoirs (8 excavated ponds and 15 tanks). This translates into more than $12 million invested to provide over 175 Mgals of irrigation water to Caribbean Area producers.

More Information

Contact your local USDA Service Center.