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Southwest Drought Learning Network Sharing Management Practices team shares lessons learned during regional droughts

August 13, 2021

The Telegraph Fire burned over 180,000 acres in Arizona before it was contained in early July. Wildfires are but one of many Southwest concerns exacerbated by drought, and the USDA Southwest Climate Hub has formed a Drought Learning Network (DLN) intended to better share lessons learned during drought mitigation, and one of the DLN’s groups has addressed that with case studies and the development of a podcast. USDA Forest Service photo by Andrew Avitt.

In early 2020, several dozen Southwest U.S.-based climate service providers and resource managers gathered in New Mexico to begin the process of creating a regional Drought Learning Network (DLN). The DLN concept was first explored through discussions among staff with the USDA Southwest Climate Hub, National Integrated Drought Information System and National Drought Mitigation Center, who had documented a need to better share experiences, lessons learned and best practices from previous droughts. 

The DLN prototype developed during that pre-pandemic meeting includes the creation of a set of evolving teams that can refocus as needed going forward. The five 2021 teams are Drought in Agriculture, Drought Impact Reporting and Response, Indigenous Collaboration, Projections to People and Sharing Management Practices. 

"The efforts being made across the Drought Learning Network are helping people in the Southwest navigate one of the worst droughts they've experienced,” NDMC education and outreach specialist Tonya Bernadt said. “The case studies and podcasts are real-world experiences that can help others with similar situations. It's encouraging to work with people who understand drought impacts in the Southwest, and who want to help people improve their responses to it.”

The NDMC is seeking to highlight ways that drought concerns are being addressed by groups like the Sharing Management Practices DLN team, which is providing best practices information to interested parties in the Southwest and beyond in several forms, like a trove of user-friendly case studies available online as well as a brand new podcast.

Showing others how drought management (and much more) gets done in the Southwest through case studies 

The Collaborative Conservation and Adaptation Strategy Toolbox (CCAST) is a multi-organizational partnership directed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Reclamation that is staffed by a network of coordinators and case study authors. Through CCAST, over 150 people affiliated with dozens of organizations are sharing information about conservation and management of natural resources. 

CCAST case studies are categorized in several communities of practice, said CCAST co-director Genevieve Johnson with the Bureau of Reclamation. Those specific areas include projects designed to address issues like invasive species, grassland and pollinators. 

“And the one we’re working on mostly this year is the drought community of practice, which is why we’re involved in the Drought Learning Network,” Johnson said. 

The CCAST case study site had been developed initially with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services. When, during a DLN meeting, case studies were suggested as a way to share best practices about navigating drought’s many impacts in the Southwest, Johnson said that utilizing the existing CCAST system allowed the idea to get off the ground quickly. 

Now, when you visit the CCAST Case Study Dashboard, you find over 100 case studies that can be organized by topic, ecosystem, stressor and more. Johnson said that the collection of searchable subjects was created over many years during conversations with multiple partners, with the idea being that the subjects should be thematic issues that cross jurisdictional boundaries, so that there would be widespread interest in the offerings.

The studies collectively show the scope of how drought influences life in the West and Southwest. One case study looks at a southern California rancher who is experimenting with cattle biotypes to breed a more drought-resistant herd. Another focuses on expanding a project started by a nonprofit that purchased water tanks with GoFundMe donations. With Bureau of Land Management permission, the organization hauled over 3,000 gallons of water per day across five different Sand Wash Basin locations in Northwest Colorado where ponds used by hundreds of wild horses had dried up during the drought of 2018. 

“We're talking to folks who are doing on-the-ground work, who don't have as many platforms to share the work that they're doing,” said Maude Dinan, CCAST coordinator and program specialist for the Jornada Experimental Range with the USDA Southwest Climate Hub. “They're looking for opportunities to develop outreach materials to help showcase what they're doing. There's a particular case study that we're working on where they're applying for grant funding, and having the outreach material that we develop, that two-page handout, is going to be really key for them in communicating their project goals.” 

Spreading the word about drought-related issues through a podcast  

When members of the DLN Sharing Management Practices team first envisioned who they could reach via podcast, they thought about people who aren’t at a desk all day, like ranchers. As the conversations grew, the potential audience did too, said Skye Aney with the USDA Southwest Climate Hub. Podcast episodes with a drought focus could help highlight vital information that people might not find if they aren’t routinely reading scientific journals for the latest information on drought research. And it turned out a few people were thinking about the same idea at the same time. 

Aney said that both USDA Southwest Climate Hub director Emile Elias and Sarah LeRoy, assistant staff scientist with the Institute of the Environment at the University of Arizona, were interested in creating a climate-centric podcast at the same time. Now, Aney is one of the producers of the Come Rain or Shine podcast, which Elias and LeRoy co-host and which serves to share drought and climate related stories.

“We've sort of evolved into doing thematic things like this drought miniseries where we're trying to come at the same topic from a few different angles,” Aney said. “And we're finding that that is working well for us.” 

One of the recent episodes that focused on drought highlighted the mental health toll that people can experience when forced to make difficult financial, career and other decisions in times of drought. Aney said that subject matter like that can hit an audience in a different way when they listen to it. It might not fit into the case study template the same way a research project does, but it’s still important to share.

“With the podcast, the main goal at the end of the day is all about getting the science out there to people in a form that is user-friendly,” he said. “We looked at the podcast episodes as a way of kind of showcasing these things that didn't quite fit into the case study templates.”

The podcasts can be found on the University of Arizona’s Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center’s website (www.swcasc.arizona.edu/podcasts) and at rainorshine.buzzsprout.com

To find out more about the Drought Learning Network, visit https://dln.swclimatehub.info/

-NDMC Communications