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Putting the Arizona drought plan into action
Published May 24, 2006
Slumped prickly pear cacti in the desert lowlands. Shuttered ski slopes in the high country. Dead mesquite trees in the rangelands. And charred forest along the Mogollon Rim.
The one-two punch of warm temperatures and a record-breaking dry spell— coming roughly 10 years into a stubborn drought—is sapping life out of the environment in Arizona, while reviving threats of a busy wildfire season, dwindling water supplies, and economic losses in the state.
To better prepare Arizona for such a dry stretch, university researchers, public agencies, citizens, and other water users have been working together to transform the state drought plan into a living, breathing monitoring system that combines science with detailed information about how livestock, rangelands, forests, vegetation, and agriculture are faring, starting in Cochise County.
“The drought plan is being implemented. It’s not just sitting there gathering dust,” said Gregg Garfin, program manager for the Climate Assessment for the Southwest (CLIMAS) at the University of Arizona who helped create the monitoring system. “I really credit the Arizona Department of Water Resources and Gov. Janet Napolitano with keeping a focus on the situation.”
Arizona’s drought plan, approved in October 2004, outlines steps for responding to drought, assessing its toll, and preparing for future water shortages. Theplan creates a five-tier drought monitoring system that ranges from normal to extreme conditions. It also establishes two state-level committees that report to the governor—the Interagency Coordinating Group and a science and data-oriented monitoring committee— and a number of local-level groups to help track conditions and coordinate drought response.
“The local groups are a big deal because the monitoring committee comes in with stream flow, temperature, and numbers,” said Garfin. “But now we get to hear from Arizona citizens that, yes, we’re having prickly pear that should be robust this time of year all dying. That is tangible evidence, that wouldn’t show up in climate data, that the drought is hurting us.”
As a co-chairman of the monitoring committee, Garfin helps assess the state’s drought strategy and brainstorm ways to improve it, and watches for signs of drought. Through his work in CLIMAS, Garfin also provides reservoir data and other information to the monthly drought status reports posted online and is involved in setting up the local groups.
Mike Crimmins, a climate science extension specialist with the UA Cooperative Extension, is helping to organize a pilot local group in Cochise County. He said it is his job to figure out how to systematically collect the information from the local groups, taking into account varying topographies and ecosystems, and apply it to the drought report.
“It has to have some connection back to people’s lives,” Crimmins said. “If the monitoring committee’s report doesn’t accurately reflect the information, it isn’t useful.”
The Cochise group, made up of local water providers, city and county managers, ranchers, concerned citizens, the Cooperative Extension, and representatives from various state and federal agencies, has met several times since October and formed a steering committee to hash out how they will send a description of drought conditions in their area to the monitoring committee.
“This kind of well-organized local and countylevel reporting of drought impacts and county-level coordination of drought response is a cutting-edge effort,” Garfin said. “Ideally, all 15 counties would be marching forward together, but realistically to have a pilot program up and running and learning from that as we move ahead to other counties is as a good a situation as we can hope for.”
Given the current conditions, launching a working drought plan throughout the state can’t come a moment too soon. The dry spell has ratcheted much of Arizona up from abnormally dry to extreme drought status, the highest level in the alert system. In February, the lack of precipitation also sparked Gov. Napolitano to convene for the first time the new Interagency Coordinating Group to discuss how to deal with the parched conditions.
According to the National Weather Service, 2005 was the third warmest year in Tucson since record-keeping began in the city in 1894. And with a recordbreaking dry stretch since last fall, forest and rangeland conditions have deteriorated to severe drought classification.
Only 0.79 inches of rain were recorded at the Tucson International Airport from September 2005 through April 2006. The Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport had a record-setting 143 days without a trace of rain, a stretch that ended March 11. And the Flagstaff Airport recorded a mere 44.6 inches of snow during the winter season. The normal amount is around 108 inches.
“I think things are only going to get worse as time goes on” in terms of lack of precipitation, said Tony Haffer, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Phoenix who co-chairs the monitoring committee. “We really need to be looking seriously at what is facing us in the coming months and potentially years and organize ourselves to take advantage of the water we have in a more efficient way.”
This article was originally published on March 14, 2006 by the Institute for the Study of Planet Earth. It was updated on May 11, 2006. For more articles in an ongoing ISPE series on drought, go to: http://www.ispe.arizona.edu/news/archive.html