Improving Drought Planning on the Hopi Reservation
The Hopi Tribe and a team of UA scientists have developed a drought monitoring system to help tribal leaders more accurately prepare for unusually dry conditions and to promote a more community-based planning effort.

By Stephanie Doster, UA Institute of the Environment
Dec. 15, 2016

DSC_3923 .jpg

Irving Nasafotie  of the Hopi Tribe Office of Range Management and the UA's Dan Ferguson discuss range conditions in summer 2013 on the Hopi Tribe's lands in northern Arizona.
Irving Nasafotie of the Hopi Tribe Office of Range Management and the UA's Dan Ferguson discuss range conditions in summer 2013 on the Hopi Tribe's lands in northern Arizona. (left)

The Hopi Tribe and University of Arizona researchers have developed a system 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 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 U.S. 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," said project leader Dan Ferguson, director of the Climate Assessment for the Southwest, or CLIMAS program, which is housed in the UA's Institute of the Environment.

"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 said.

Ferguson presented the team's findings at his talk, "More Than Just Consumers: Integrating Local Observations Into Drought Monitoring to Better Support Decision Making," on Wednesday as part of the American Geophysical Union's annual meeting in San Francisco.

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 said.

A collaborative approach to climate impact research and developing responses, one designed to build practical solutions in partnership with communities, is a hallmark of the CLIMAS program, which has been conducting community-engaged research in Arizona and New Mexico since 1998.

"Our process is simple, but effective," Ferguson said. "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."

The drought project began in 2009, when the Hopi Tribe Department of Natural Resources, or HDNR, approached UA 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. 

"The overarching goal was to help the HDNR develop a local drought information system that would work within the constraints of existing human, technological and financial resources and limited climate data," Ferguson said. "The system we have envisioned would allow for ongoing community dialogue about conditions that, in turn, would promote a more community-based drought planning effort, yield useful information to all tribal members and meet an expressed local need."

Throughout the project, Ferguson and UA 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 to understand their concerns, needs and goals.

"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 said. "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.

"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 said. "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 UA 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 said.

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. 


Resources for the media

Dan Ferguson

UA Institute of the Environment


Stephanie Doster

UA Institute of the Environment