Home News Local News Drought has prompted federal payments to Chaves County

Drought has prompted federal payments to Chaves County

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Climatologist seeks volunteers to report conditions

Chaves County ranchers and farmers have received drought payments under a federal program this year due to severe drought conditions, but indications are now that precipitation through the end of the year could improve the situation in New Mexico.

Two people involved in the process that leads climate monitors nationwide to decide whether drought conditions exist — determinations tied to emergency payments or loans to agricultural producers — were in Roswell Friday to talk about the climate monitoring process and to train volunteers to gather data.

Caiti Steele with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Southwest Climate Hub, located on the New Mexico State University campus in Las Cruces, provided an overview of how a national group of 12 climatologists obtains information from U.S. States and territories and publishes the official U.S. Drought Monitor, established in 1999.

By looking for agreement among various data sets, the climatologists develop their analyses and make the maps published on the web. The data and maps are used to authorize federal payments to producers if persistent and severe drought conditions are documented.

“It (the Drought Monitor) is particularly important if you are affected by USDA decisions,” Steele said, indicating the system was first tied to relief payments in 2012. “Any county that has been qualified as being a primary drought disaster area or any neighboring county will also qualify for assistance.”

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The Drought Monitor published Oct. 9 indicates that the Four Corners area of the state is experiencing an “exceptional,” or category D4, drought. That means that precipitation levels, soil moisture, the amount of forage and other such factors indicate the region’s drought conditions are similar to the worst drought conditions during the historical period considered for data analysis. Meanwhile, the vast majority of Chaves County is experiencing severe (D2) or extreme (D3) drought.

Gov. Susana Martinez made an official declaration of drought for the state in July, noting that 90 percent of the state is experiencing severe to exceptional drought. Among other things, the executive order allows some farmers and ranchers to qualify for emergency loans through the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA).

The conditions also have meant that Chaves County producers have received and can continue to apply until Jan. 31 for payments under the Livestock Forage Disaster Program, said Anthony Chaves of the FSA, which administers the program.

“Nobody has to sign up for it. It is all based on the national trigger,” he said, “It pays out per animal unit per month” for one to five months, depending on the category of drought. This year, he said, the payment amount is $28 per animal per eligible month.

If producers have not already received payments based on previous eligibility, they can contact the Chaves County office of the Farm Service Agency in Roswell to fill out the necessary paperwork.

“It (the money) is meant for them to go buy forage — whether it is hay or some other feed supplement — for their livestock,” he said.

Producers are also eligible for payments through the FSA’s Non-Insurable Act Program if their forage is native grass and provided they signed up for coverage last fall.

Steele said that Chaves County producers received three months of payments under the Forage Disaster Program in 2008 and four months of payment in 2014. So far, in 2018, Chaves County has reached D2 levels for eight consecutive weeks from May to October, which triggered one month of payments. It also has reached D3 levels for a few weeks during that period. If D3 conditions persist, additional months of payments will be authorized.

The outlook, at least for the short term, is that increased precipitation from now through December is not likely to ease the drought in northern New Mexico but should benefit southern New Mexico, according to Dave DuBois, a state climatologist with New Mexico State University who supplies data to the climatologists who create the U.S. Drought Monitor.

He said that information from the Climate Prediction Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicates that southern New Mexico is likely to have “above average” rainfall — between 50 percent to 60 percent more than in previous years —for the next three months. Northern New Mexico is likely to experience 40 percent more rainfall.

That outlook, in turn, has led the Climate Prediction Center to indicate that drought conditions will persist in northern New Mexico through the end of the year, but that southeast New Mexico is expected to see improved conditions or even an end of drought conditions by the end of December.

As DuBois explained, precipitation is not the only factor that matters when determining whether drought conditions exist. While pastures might look green, they could still lack the type of forage needed for livestock depending on when rain, hail or snow fell.

“It is all about timing when you talk about drought,” he said.

DuBois also discussed the need for more data collectors. He manages the state effort involved in the nonprofit Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS) in which volunteers provide daily reports about precipitation or lack thereof. They also can provide anecdotal information such as their observations about vegetation, soil conditions, animal die-offs or water storage tank levels.

“We dearly treasure every piece of information and impacts we can get,” DuBois said. “There is not a lot of data being collected in New Mexico.”

He said that the small state of New Jersey has more data-collection sites than New Mexico, for example.

Right now, he said, New Mexico has 300 to 500 people providing information. Nationally, there are 9,000 to 11,000 volunteers, which can surge to 15,000 during storm events. He explained that citizen sites are sometimes the only ones available during severe storms, as official federal sites such as at airports are often offline during emergency situations.

The program will provide gauges and cylinders for free to volunteers to collect information about the precipitation. Or to report that no precipitation was collected. “Zero is data,” said DuBois. “I call them are zero heroes.”

The group also provides training and information about the process, which involves submitting information online or by using a mobile phone app.

Interested volunteers can contact the Chaves County Extension Service office, 575-622-3210, or DuBois at dwdubois@nmsu.edu. They also can sign up on the CoCoRaHS website, cocorahs.org.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.