National Drought Mitigation Center


Stakeholders meet to share resources and experiences for drought planning in the Southwest

July 22, 2022

Resource managers, climate service providers and stakeholders gathered in Las Cruces, New Mexico, for the third annual meeting of the Southwest Drought Learning Network, the first in-person gathering of the network in over two years (Photo by Ruth Sedillo/USDA-ARS-Jornada Experimental Range)

Last month, resource managers, climate service providers and stakeholders met for the third annual meeting of the Southwest Drought Learning Network, a peer-to-peer knowledge-sharing network designed to increase the resilience of communities facing current and future drought. Over the two-day event held in early June in Las Cruces, New Mexico, attendees came together to discuss drought-related needs for the Southwest and brainstorm goals and activities to help the network meet those needs.

Participants came from across the Southwest, with partners joining from adjacent states like Colorado, Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma. Agenda items included presentations on current drought conditions and recent scientific advances, overviews of different decision support tools available to resource managers and discussions between state climatologists from across the region. The meeting, held at New Mexico State University, was the first in-person meeting of the entire network in over two years. It was an opportunity for members to come up with new strategies, goals and projects for the upcoming year. Perhaps more importantly, though, it provided a space to reinvigorate relationships post-pandemic at a time of unprecedented drought in the region.

“The Drought Learning Network was created to try and eliminate the silos in which we are all comfortable working and highlight how ‘peer-to-peer’ learning can benefit everyone,” said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center.

Fuchs was one of the founders of the network back in 2018 as part of a partnership between the NDMC, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Southwest Climate Hub and the National Integrated Drought Information System. At that time, the Colorado Plateau was gripped by drought, the fourth time in less than 20 years that the Southwest was dominated by extreme and exceptional drought conditions. Regional experts realized that they needed to find a way to share stories, management practices and information to capture lessons learned from previous droughts to help them plan for future crises. Thus, the Drought Learning Network was born.

From the beginning, the network has consisted of resource managers, scientists, tribal representatives, extension agents, climate service providers and community members interested in sharing their experiences. The goal has always been to build mechanisms to share information and knowledge so that climate service providers can best provide information that’s useful and usable to stakeholders on the ground.

“The DLN is ultimately a service for resource managers and communities to learn from one another,” said Fuchs. “It’s a place for drought climate service providers to foster knowledge exchange about community needs, resources and gaps.”

The first annual meeting of the Drought Learning Network was held in February 2020 in Las Cruces to kick off the network. Though all in-person activity was halted shortly thereafter, the network continued to grow and evolve during the pandemic with a virtual annual gathering in 2021 and more regular remote meetings throughout for five smaller issue-based teams.

The teams were first developed during that 2020 meeting to focus on narrower priority issues. In the beginning, for example, there was a team focused just on eastern New Mexico in response to acute drought. They have evolved as regional needs have shifted, and the five teams have grown to encompass broader, more regional issues. For example, a Drought in Agriculture team focuses on resources for farmers and agricultural producers. An Indigenous Collaborations team aims to increase planning capacity in tribal communities.

The activities of the teams have also evolved over time as the network has grown. One team focused on sharing best management practices has recently branched out into webinars, podcasts and radio spots. Similarly, teams have begun to find opportunities to leverage each other’s expertise. For example, the Monitoring and Drought Impacts team is currently working with the Indigenous Collaborations team to organize a drought monitoring workshop for the Four Corners region. Meanwhile, the Projections to People and Drought in Agriculture teams are working on a drought outlook podcast to aid decision making for agricultural producers and resource managers. Those kinds of cross-team efforts are constantly emerging and evolving, says Tonya Bernadt, education and outreach specialist for the NDMC.

“Part of what’s so cool with this network is that we’re very flexible,” said Bernadt. “We can move things around however we feel necessary based on what the highest needs are in the region.”

Bernadt adds that the June meeting was an important opportunity to assess the current state of drought monitoring and planning resources and practices to help the network plan. Participants brainstormed several different activities for the upcoming year, including climate and weather 101 webinars at tribal colleges, more drought briefings and a localized monitoring blitz to recruit citizen scientists for volunteer weather data collection.

“It’s definitely meeting the needs as intended,” said Bernadt. “It’s working really well, and we’re learning as we go.”

Learn more about the Southwest Drought Learning Network:

-- Leah Campbell, NDMC Communications