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USDA & National Drought Mitigation Center Host PR & USVI Drought Monitor Forums

Drought Monitoring for the Caribbean Area - Catherines Rest, St. Croix, pasture & pond - August 2015
Last year's drought dried up ponds, decimated pastures and crops, and weakened and killed livestock and wildlife in the Caribbean Area. St. Croix livestock farmers were particularly hard hit.
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Bringing the U.S. Drought Monitor to the USVI

The Virgin Islands is one step closer to being included in the U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM), a national assessment tool that maps drought conditions nationwide on a weekly basis. The USDM uses historic and current precipitation and temperature data, economic impacts to agriculture and other climatological factors to determine if an area is experiencing drought. Many USDA drought relief programs are triggered by USDM drought designation.

The 2015 drought dealt a huge blow to agriculture in the Caribbean Area: It damaged crops, weakened and killed livestock, and increased the threat of wildfires. However, VI agronomists and farmers soon discovered that the U.S. Drought Monitor’s weekly assessments covered all 50 states and Puerto Rico, but not the U.S. Virgin Islands. The USVI didn’t have sufficient data to be included.

To address this problem, USDA and the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC) – in partnership with the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI), the VI Dept. of Agriculture, VITEMA and the National Weather Service – convened a forum to discuss how the territory can receive additional drought relief resources through data collection and communication to reduce the time it takes for drought to be officially declared and for federal funding to arrive. The Forum was held August 30-31 at the UVI Great Hall on St. Croix, with a video-conference link to UVI St. Thomas. Local agency personnel, farmers, researchers, teachers and students gathered at the Forum to determine what steps to take to get the Virgin Islands on the weekly Drought Monitor map.

VI Agriculture Commissioner, Carlos Robles, describes local efforts to combat drought.
VI Agriculture Commissioner, Carlos Robles, describes local efforts to combat drought.

VI Agriculture Commissioner Carlos Robles revealed to Drought Monitor authors and Forum attendees that the VI’s absence from the USDM delayed the federal drought declaration last year – to compensate for the lack of data the VI government had to gather proof that the islands were experiencing an emergency drought situation.

We had to develop an on-the-ground story before we convinced the USDA Farm Service Agency and the Secretary of Agriculture to make a declaration of drought in the Virgin Islands,” Robles explained, adding that newspaper articles and Facebook photos of starving livestock were part of the evidence the VI Agriculture Department gathered.

Having a system in place that collects data for the drought monitor would have been a much faster and easier way to prove the territory was in a drought. A drought monitoring tool can speed the time federal funding comes in during a drought disaster and can also help farmers better understand water and pasture conditions and manage them accordingly. But gathering the necessary data and getting it to the USDM authors on a weekly basis is a daunting task.

A panel of U.S. Drought Monitor authors answer audience questions at the USVI Drought Monitor Forum, August 30, 2016.
A panel of U.S. Drought Monitor authors answer audience questions at the USVI Drought Monitor Forum, August 30, 2016.

During the day and a half Forum, 48 participants on St. Croix and 17 on St. Thomas learned from a half dozen authors about the history of the U.S. Drought Monitor, how the weekly USDM maps are developed, and the data requirements to put together the maps on a weekly basis.

Brian Fuchs, a NDMC climatologist, said that between 40 and 60 different indicators are collected for each locale depending on its particular characteristics. Precipitation, drought indices, stream flow, soil moisture, ground water and satellite data are all common indicators. The climatological record for each indicator is important too, since a historic baseline is needed to assess “normal” conditions.

We’re going to need the stakeholders, we’re going to need the local experts, we’re going to need the participation,” Fuchs said. “It’s good for one person to take the lead but we still need multiple people to champion the effort.”

Michelle Martinez and Debbie Folsum from the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA), explained that once Secretary Vilsack declared the drought disaster last year, federal funds were released through FSA assistance programs that reimbursed farmers for feed they had to buy during the drought (since pasture grass and hay were scarce) and for livestock that died as a result of the drought.

Odalys Martinez from the National Weather Service describes NOAA and citizen monitoring efforts to USVI Drought Monitor Forum participants, August 31, 2016.
Odalys Martínez from the National Weather Service describes NOAA and citizen monitoring efforts to USVI Drought Monitor Forum participants, August 31, 2016.

Local researchers and conservationists described their USVI data and drought mitigation programs during the Forum, including Jaime Valentín of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Dr. William Gould of the USDA Caribbean Climate Hub, Dr. Robert Godfrey of the UVI Agricultural Experiment Station, Dr. Kristin Wilson-Grimes of the UVI Water Resources Research Institute, Christina Chanes of the UVI Cooperative Extension Service, Dr. David Morris of the UVI Science and Math Department, and Odalys Martínez of the NOAA National Weather Service.

It was clear from the presentations and discussion that much of the local climatological data needed for the drought monitor is already being collected, and there is also historic weather data available. But Mark Svoboda from the NDMC explained that even though VI data is available, it needs to be converted to GIS format and provided to the USDM authors on a weekly basis. In addition, indicators such as water costs, economic effects on farmers and other types of impact data are not systematically collected.

Yvette Browne of Sejah Farms said the territory should put a committee together to determine how data will be collected. “This needs to be done now, sooner than later, even if the water situation is better this year, since it can help forewarn farmers about coming issues,” she stated.

According to Commissioner Robles, the U.S. Geological Survey will soon be back in the territory to monitor groundwater resources, which is data that could feed into the drought monitor. But getting on the map won’t happen overnight, despite the forum’s forward motion.

Given what I heard today, there’s going to be some time to develop the local resource pool and get that coordinated so the people at the national level can get what they need from us,” Robles said. “Our request to get on the monitor has been heard and the process has been commenced in earnest. Now we understand what it takes to get on and stay on the monitor.”


Puerto Rico Drought Plan Unveiled

Dr. Pablo A. Mendéz describes drought impacts on public health at the PR Drought Monitor Forum on September 1, 2016.
Dr. Pablo A. Méndez describes drought impacts on public health at the PR Drought Monitor Forum on September 1, 2016.

Drought Monitor authors also held a Forum in Puerto Rico on September 1, 2016. The Forum was held at the U.S. Forest Service offices in the Rio Piedras Botanical Gardens to provide similar information to at least 30 local and federal researchers and emergency managers, and to present the new Puerto Rico Drought Plan (visit http://drought.unl.edu/Planning/DroughtPlans/StatePlanning.aspx?st=pr to download a copy of the plan). National Weather Service and U.S. Geological Survey representatives provided a summary of rainfall deficit and hydrologic conditions in Puerto Rico, respectively. The Puerto Rico Emergency Management Agency and the PR Department of Environment and Natural Resources detailed the local drought protocol. Researchers from the University of Puerto Rico also gave a presentation about the impacts of drought on public health and soil moisture. This forum successfully resulted in better procedures to the local drought assessment process. For more information, contact Odalys Martínez-Sánchez, NOAA National Weather Service San Juan Office Lead Forecaster & Climate Team Leader, at 787-253-4586 or visit www.weather.gov/sju


U.S. Drought Monitor Map of drought conditions in Puerto Rico during the week of August 18, 2015. USVI data were unavailable for a drought map.The U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) monitors drought conditions using both scientific data and input from experts on-the-ground to provide a weekly analysis and assessment of current drought conditions for the United States. The USDM began in 1999 and now has around 400 local experts nationwide that contribute weekly. A group of a dozen authors from the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC), NOAA and USDA use that input to make weekly maps that reflect their analysis and assessment of current drought conditions across the country, including Puerto Rico. The National Drought Mitigation Center is now seeking to include the USVI in the Drought Monitor.

Drought is a serious threat to the Caribbean Area. For the last 3 to 5 years, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have experienced uncommonly dry weather. Last year, eastern parts of St. Thomas and St. John, and the entire island of St. Croix (as well as eastern Puerto Rico, Culebra, and Vieques) suffered through over six months without significant rainfall. Over 86% of Puerto Rico and the USVI were under a water deficit by early August 2015. These extreme conditions damaged crops and pastures, weakened and killed livestock and wildlife, and increased the threat of wildfires. (For more information, see Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are in the grip of a historic drought.)

Here in the Caribbean Area, the effects of climate change make us more vulnerable than other areas of the world. We will be confronting many climate-related issues in the upcoming years that will change the way farmers manage their land. We face drought, wildfire, salt water intrusion of our aquifers from sea level rise, African dust, unpredictable weather – all traits of climate change. NRCS is here to help farmers adapt to climate change,” said NRCS Caribbean Area Director, Edwin Almodóvar.

St. Croix goats were so desperate for food they denuded pastures and stripped leaves & bark from trees (August 11, 2015, Estate Lower Love, St. Croix)

St. Croix goats were so desperate for food they denuded pastures and stripped leaves & bark from trees (August 11, 2015, Estate Lower Love, St. Croix).

The damages and losses caused by the last year’s drought led USDA to designate a disaster in eastern Puerto Rico counties on July 15, 2015, with additional counties added to the designation August 4th, and St. Croix designated as a primary natural disaster area on August 26. USDA used U.S. Drought Monitor data (see map above) and local input to determine the designated areas.

President Obama and I are committed to ensuring that agriculture remains a bright spot in our nation’s economy by sustaining the successes of America’s farmers, ranchers, and rural communities through these difficult times. We’re also telling producers in St. Croix that USDA stands with you and your communities when severe weather and natural disasters threaten to disrupt your livelihood,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

U.S. Drought Monitor Map - August 8, 2016

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