U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee and a longtime member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, today introduced the Improved Soil Moisture and Precipitation Monitoring Act of 2018, legislation that would provide tools and direction to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to help improve the accuracy of the U.S. Drought Monitor and require the coordination of USDA agencies that use precipitation data to determine livestock grazing loss assistance and stocking rates. He also introduced legislation to strengthen and improve the Cooperative Observer Program (COOP) of the National Weather Service, of which the Commerce Committee has jurisdiction, in order to support state-coordinated programs that provide data for the Drought Monitor and other weather programs. The COOP system is the nation’s largest and oldest weather network and is entirely run by volunteers. Thune introduced these bills after hearing directly from several concerned ranchers at an agriculture roundtable event that he hosted in Rapid City in April 2018.
“South Dakota farmers and ranchers are familiar with working through extreme weather conditions, especially drought,” said Thune. “And after the 2016 and 2017 drought conditions in much of Western South Dakota, some of them would probably say they’re all too familiar with it and are very concerned about accurate precipitation measurement. I recently heard some of those concerns firsthand, which is what led to the development of this legislation. Together, I’m hopeful that we can make the Drought Monitor a far more effective and efficient tool and, at the same time, ensure USDA programs are using accurate and consistent data in administering programs that are designed to help the agriculture community.
“I can’t say it enough – no one knows what’s needed to improve agriculture policy more than the farmers and ranchers who work the land and raise livestock in South Dakota. I’m thankful for everything they do for our communities and state and can say with certainty that this is not the first, nor will it be the last piece of legislation that will move through the halls of Congress thanks to their suggestions and input.”
Thune’s Improved Soil Moisture and Precipitation Monitoring Act would:
- Grant the secretary of agriculture the discretion to improve soil moisture monitoring by increasing the number of monitoring stations or by utilizing other appropriate cost-effective soil moisture measuring devices;
- Increase the number of precipitation and soil moisture monitoring stations in any area that has experienced extreme or exceptional drought for any six month period since the beginning of 2016, including South Dakota, and authorizes a $5 million per year appropriation to do so;
- Require USDA to develop standards to integrate data from citizen scientists and to collect soil moisture data; and
- Require USDA agencies to use consistent precipitation monitoring data and drought assessment across the programs that USDA administers.
Thune has heard a number of concerns with respect to the accuracy of the Drought Monitor, especially given its use in determining grazing disaster assistance through programs administered by the Farm Service Agency. Among these concerns is a frustration that USDA does not fully utilize data gathered by existing reporting stations to determine indemnities for insured grazing losses under the Pasture, Rangeland, Forage Insurance Program that is administered by the Risk Management Agency.
Ranchers have also raised concerns about USDA’s differing rainfall and drought determinations during last summer’s drought that plagued Western South Dakota for several months. For example, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) determined that some federal grazing lands were too dry and that stocking rates needed to be reduced on USFS grasslands. At the same time, the Drought Monitor classified the same area as not dry enough for ranchers to be eligible for Livestock Forage Program assistance. Thune’s legislation is aimed at addressing these and other concerns.