Auburn University researcher, team present new methods of drought forecasting to advance early-warning efforts for agriculture, natural ecosystems

Credit: Auburn University

Here’s the release from Auburn University (Terri Greene):

With his research team, Sanjiv Kumar, assistant professor in the Auburn University School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, co-authored a breakthrough study on drought forecasting published March 12 in Climate and Atmospheric Science, a partner publication to the journal, Nature.

In the paper, “Seasonal to multi-year soil moisture drought forecasting,” researchers sought to find out whether they could accurately forecast soil moisture conditions at long lead times—from the next season to a few years out—and identify the mechanisms underlying that possibility.

Kumar said advanced long lead time in predicting soil moisture will greatly improve drought early-warning efforts for agriculture and natural ecosystems. The research is based on the latest advances in earth system modelling, as well as an improved understanding among researchers of land surface processes that influence soil moisture behavior on long timescales.

He said these new findings will benefit agricultural and water resources as well as wildfire planning to mitigate the impacts of drought on society, including economic losses in the billions of dollars and intense stress to the productivity of ecosystems.

Kumar has done seminal work in past few years to discover and develop a scientific basis for the potential for skillful soil moisture predictability, said Imtiaz Rangwala, one of the study’s co-authors.

Kumar’s previous work includes leading the group of researchers that in 2019 discovered soil-moisture re-emergence, a phenomenon that will likely have a profound impact on climate predictability science.

“That body of work, in culmination with this paper, provides a strong foundation for future research in soil moisture forecasting,” said Rangwala, a research scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES)/Western Water Assessment at the University of Colorado-Boulder and the climate science lead at the North Central Climate Adaptation Science Center.

Janaki Alavalapati, dean of Auburn’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, said Kumar’s ongoing work with fellow researchers has led to an ever-growing list of potential benefits.

“Dr. Kumar’s compelling new research builds on his previous work,” Alavalapati said. “These findings could have an enormous positive impact on drought predictability, leading to improved early-warning systems. This, in turn, will have a profound impact on people who experience drought in different parts of the world every year.”

In addition to Kumar and Rangwala, the research team included Musa Esit, a visiting scientist who worked with Kumar on the research; Ashutosh Pandey, a former graduate student; David M. Lawrence from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, or NACR, in Boulder, Colorado; and Stephen Yeager from NCAR.

While advancing the capacity for drought early warning was a major motivation for this study, the work also has implications to address other water and land management issues, Rangwala said.

“Better information on soil moisture conditions is highly sought-after among communities who manage our land and water resources, but it has historically been among the most challenging variables to get accurate information on. Forecasting soil moisture accurately has been even a greater challenge,” Rangwala said.

“Currently, we cannot forecast precipitation with any skill beyond two weeks. That’s a pretty hard physical limit on our drought predicting skills. But our research shows the potential to skillfully forecast soil moisture several months out, particularly for regions in the central and western U.S., where there is even some skill to predict soil moisture conditions over multiple years.”

The next step for this research, Kumar and his collaborators said, is to apply the principles of this discovery to develop tools to forecast soil moisture at local scales, where it can directly benefit users in agricultural planning, including the planting of drought-tolerant varieties and irrigation management.

#Nevada farmers and conservationists balk at ‘water banking’ — The Colombian

Water banking fundamentals. Graphic credit: Aspect Consulting

From The Associated Press (Sam Metz) via The Colombian:

Rural water users are panicking over a proposal to create a market for the sale and purchase of water rights in Nevada, unconvinced by arguments that the concept would encourage conservation.

Lawmakers on [April 6, 2021] weighed whether so-called “water banking” would be preferable to prevailing water law doctrines that govern surface and groundwater rights disputes in the driest state in the U.S.

A legislative hearing about two proposals to allow water rights holders to sell their entitlements pitted state water bureaucrats against a coalition of farmers, conservationists and rural officials.

One proposal would allow for basins to create “banks” where surface and groundwater rights holders can sell or lease water they conserve. The other would create programs to manage the conserved water, allowing the state to purchase “conservation credits” or pay water rights holders to “retire” their claims.

“What we’ve heard all the time for years is that this is incentivizing people to use more water that they need; or they are being punished for not using their entire water right; or they’re forced to sell off what they don’t use. There’s no really satisfying response to that except that it’s how (the law) was written,” acting Nevada State Engineer Adam Sullivan said.

As the U.S. West contends with a hotter and drier future, water banking is becoming an increasingly prevalent management strategy in states including Colorado and Utah. Proponents argue crediting people for conservation will help prevent future shortages and offer water rights holders an option beyond use, abandonment or selling.

A working group in the Colorado Legislature is evaluating the concept and the proposals under consideration in Nevada are based off policies in place in Utah and Oregon. The state’s proposals were among the most anticipated bills in the Nevada Legislature this year. In his presentation to lawmakers, even Sullivan said he was skeptical about creating an account to allow the state to purchase conservation credits and told lawmakers “it should only move forward with great caution.”


In rural Nevada, where limited groundwater has long sustained industries like ranching and mining, local officials worry that creating a market for water rights will encourage their constituents to lease their water for use elsewhere. They also worry water banking facilitates speculation from investors betting that water will become more valuable as perennial drought makes it more scarce…

Throughout the West, rural water users have been pursued by New York-based hedge fund Water Asset Management, which has reportedly purchased water rights from farmers in central Nevada’s Humboldt River basin, in Colorado’s Grand Valley and in central Arizona.

Nevada Department of Conservation & Natural Resources spokesperson Samantha Thompson said the proposal, which was submitted by the Governor’s Finance Office on behalf of the state division of water resources, wasn’t geared toward a particular basin or seeker of water rights.

Deputy Administrator for the Nevada Division of Water Resources Micheline Fairbank said she wasn’t aware of any hedge funds seeking to use water banking frameworks for speculation.