Management Creeping Toward A National Drought Policy For The United States

Drought is a normal part of the climate for virtually all portions of the United States; it is a recurring, inevitable feature of climate that results in serious economic, environmental, and social impacts. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) estimates average annual losses because of drought in the United States to be $6-8 billion, more than for any other natural hazard (FEMA, 1995). Yet the United States is ill prepared to effectively deal with the consequences of drought. Historically, the U.S. approach to drought management has been to react to the impacts of drought by offering relief to the affected area. These emergency response programs can best be characterized as too little and too late. More important, as noted in this chapter for Australia and South Africa, drought relief does little if anything to reduce the vulnerability of the affected area to future drought events. In fact, there is considerable evidence that providing relief actually increases vulnerability to future events by increasing dependence on government and encouraging resource managers to maintain the very resource management methods that may be placing the individual, industry, utility, or community at risk. Improving drought management requires a new paradigm, one that encourages preparedness and mitigation through the application of the principles of risk management.

Drought conditions are not limited to the western United States—although they occur more frequently in this region and are usually longer in duration than those that occur in the east. The droughts of 1998-2002 demonstrated the vulnerability of the eastern states to severe and extended periods of precipitation deficits. Wherever it occurs, severe drought can result in enormous economic and environmental impacts as well as personal hardship. However, because the incidence of drought is lower in the east, this region is generally less prepared to mitigate and respond to its effects. The west is currently better equipped to manage water supplies during extended periods of water shortage because of large investments in water storage and transmission facilities, more advanced water conservation measures, irrigation, and other measures that improve resiliency.

State-level drought planning has increased significantly during the past two decades (Wilhite, 1997a). In 1982, only 3 states had drought plans in place. By 2004, 36 states had developed plans and 4 states were at various stages of plan development ( The basic goal of state drought plans should be to improve the effectiveness of preparedness and response efforts by enhancing monitoring and early warning, risk and impact assessment, and mitigation and response. Plans should also contain provisions to improve coordination within agencies of state government and between local and federal government. Initially, state drought plans largely focused on response; today the trend is for states to place greater emphasis on mitigation as the fundamental element. Several states have recently revised their drought response plans to further emphasize mitigation (e.g., Montana, Nebraska, Colorado). Other states that previously did not have a drought plan have recently developed plans that place more emphasis on mitigation (e.g., New Mexico, Texas, Georgia, Hawaii). Arizona is currently developing a drought mitigation plan. As states gain more experience with drought planning and mitigation actions, the trend toward mitigation is expected to continue. In addition, drought planning must be considered an ongoing process rather than a discrete event. Moving from response planning to mitigation planning represents a continuum. Even the most advanced state drought planning efforts have moved only partially along that continuum.

The growth in the number of states with drought plans suggests an increased concern at that level about the potential impacts of extended water shortages and an attempt to address those concerns through planning. Initially, states were slow to develop drought plans because the planning process was unfamiliar. With the development of drought planning models (see Chapter 5) and the availability of a greater number of drought plans for comparison, drought planning has become a less mysterious process for states (Wilhite, 2000a). As states initiate the planning process, one of their first actions is to study the drought plans of other states to compare methodology and organizational structure.

The rapid adoption of drought plans by states is also a clear indication of their benefits. Drought plans provide the framework for improved coordination within and between levels of government. Early warning and monitoring systems are more comprehensive and integrated, and the delivery of this information to decision makers at all levels is enhanced. Many states are now making full use of the Internet to disseminate information to a diverse set of users and decision makers. Through drought plans, the risks associated with drought can be better defined and addressed with proactive mitigation and response programs. The drought planning process also provides the opportunity to involve the numerous stakeholders early and often in plan development, thus increasing the probability that conflicts between water users will be reduced during times of shortage. All of these actions can help to improve public awareness of the importance of water management and the value of protecting limited water resources.

With tremendous advances in drought planning at the state level in recent years, it is not surprising that states have been extremely frustrated and dissatisfied with the lack of progress at the federal level. The lack of federal leadership and coordination quickly became an issue after a string of consecutive drought years beginning in 1996. This resulted in a series of policy initiatives that have put the United States on course to develop a national drought policy.

Calls for action on drought policy and plan development in the United States date back to at least the late 1970s. The growing concern has resulted primarily from the inability of the federal government to adequately address the spiraling impacts associated with drought through the traditional reactive, crisis management approach. This approach has relied on ad hoc inter-agency committees that are quickly disbanded following termination of the drought event. The lessons (i.e., successes and failures) of these response efforts are forgotten and the failures are subsequently repeated with the next event. Calls for action include recommendations from the Western Governors' Policy Office (1978), General Accounting Office (1979), National Academy of Sciences (1986), Great Lakes Commission (1990), Interstate Council on Water Policy (1991), Environmental Protection Agency (Smith and Tirpak, 1989), American Meteorological Society (1997), Office of Technology Assessment (1993), Federal Emergency Management Agency (1996), Western Governors' Association (1996), and Western Water Policy Review Advisory Commission (1998).

The most recent of these calls for action are worthy of further discussion. In response to the severe impacts of drought in 1996, FEMA was directed to chair a multi-state drought task force to address the drought situation in the Southwest and the southern Great Plains states (FEMA, 1996). The purpose of the task force was to coordinate federal response to drought-related problems in the stricken region by identifying needs, applicable programs, and program barriers. The task force was also directed to suggest ways to improve drought management through both short- and long-term national actions. The final report of this task force contained several important long-term recommendations. First, the task force called for the development of a national drought policy based on the philosophy of cooperation with state and local stakeholders. It recommended that this policy include a national climate and drought monitoring system to provide early warning to federal, state, and local officials of the onset and severity of drought. Second, it suggested that a regional forum be created to assess regional needs and resources, identify critical areas and interests, provide reliable and timely information, and coordinate state actions. Third, FEMA was asked to include drought as one of the natural hazards addressed in the National Mitigation Strategy, given the substantial costs associated with its occurrence and the numerous opportunities available to mitigate its effects. Fourth, states strongly requested that a single federal agency be appointed to coordinate drought preparedness and response.

Another important initiative resulting from the 1996 drought was the development of a drought task force under the leadership of the Western Governors' Association (WGA). This task force, formed in June 1996, emphasized the importance of a comprehensive, integrated drought response. The WGA Drought Task Force's report made several important recommendations (WGA, 1996). First, it recommended development of a national drought policy or framework to integrate actions and responsibilities among all levels of government and emphasize preparedness, response, and mitigation measures. Second, it encouraged states to develop drought preparedness plans that include early warning, triggers, and short- and long-term planning and mitigation measures. Third, it called for creation of a regional drought coordinating council to develop sustainable policy, monitor drought conditions, assess state-level responses, identify impacts and issues for resolution, and work in partnership with the federal government to address drought-related needs. Fourth, the report called for establishment of a federal interagency coordinating group with a designated lead agency for drought coordination with states and regional agencies.

A number of important policy initiatives have resulted from the FEMA and WGA reports. A memorandum of understanding (MOU) was signed in early 1997 between the WGA and several federal agencies. This MOU called for a partnership between federal, state, local, and tribal governments to reduce drought impacts in the western United States. The MOU resulted in the following actions: (1) the Western Drought Coordination Council (WDCC) was formed to address the recommendations of the western governors; (2) the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was designated as the lead federal agency for drought, to carry out the objectives of the MOU; and (3) the USDA established a federal inter-agency drought coordinating group.

Another initiative of considerable relevance was the reexamination of western water policy by the Western Water Policy Review Advisory Commission (1998). This commission was created by passage of the Western Water Policy Review Act of 1992. One of the commission's reports summarized recommendations from recent studies on drought management that should be incorporated in future attempts to integrate drought management and water policy in the West (Wilhite, 1997b). The consensus from the reports reviewed in this study emphasized the need for a national drought policy and plan, a national climate monitoring system in support of that policy, and the development of state drought mitigation plans. Although impacts of drought occur mainly at the local, state, and regional level, this study concluded that it was imperative for the federal government to provide the leadership necessary to improve the way the nation prepares for and responds to drought.

The National Drought Policy Act of 1998 (PL 105-199) was introduced in Congress as a direct result of the 1996

drought and the initiatives referred to previously. This bill created the National Drought Policy Commission (NDPC) to "provide advice and recommendations on creation of an integrated, coordinated Federal policy designed to prepare for and respond to serious drought emergencies." The NDPC's report, submitted to Congress and the president in May 2000, recommended that the United States establish a national drought policy emphasizing preparedness (NDPC, 2000). The goals of this policy would be to:

1. Incorporate planning, implementation of plans and proactive mitigation measures, risk management, resource stewardship, environmental considerations, and public education as key elements of an effective national drought policy

2. Improve collaboration among scientists and managers to enhance observation networks, monitoring, prediction, information delivery, and applied research and to foster public understanding of and preparedness for drought

3. Develop and incorporate comprehensive insurance and financial strategies into drought preparedness plans

4. Maintain a safety net of emergency relief that emphasizes sound stewardship of natural resources and self-help

5. Coordinate drought programs and resources effectively, efficiently, and in a customer-oriented manner

The NDPC further suggested creation of a long-term, continuing National Drought Council composed of federal and nonfederal members to implement the recommendations of the NDPC. It advised Congress to designate the Secretary of Agriculture as the co-chair of the council, with a nonfederal co-chair to be elected by the nonfederal council members. An interim National Drought Council was established by the Secretary of Agriculture following submission of the NDPC report, pending action on a permanent council by the U.S. Congress.

In July 2003, the National Drought Preparedness Act was introduced in the U.S. Congress. The purpose of this bill is "to improve national drought preparedness, mitigation, and response efforts." The bill authorizes creation of a National Drought Council within the Office of the Secretary of Agriculture. Membership on the council would be composed of both federal and nonfederal persons. The council would assist in coordinating drought preparedness activities between the federal government and state, local, and tribal governments. A National Office of Drought Preparedness would be created within the USDA to provide assistance to the council. The council is directed by the bill to develop a "comprehensive National Drought Policy Action Plan that

• delineates and integrates responsibilities for activities relating to drought (including drought preparedness, mitigation, research, risk management, training, and emergency relief) among Federal agencies; and

• ensures that those activities are coordinated with the activities of the States, local governments, Indian tribes, and neighboring countries; and

• is integrated with drought management programs of the States, Indian tribes, local governments, watershed groups, and private entities; and

• avoids duplicating Federal, State, tribal, local, watershed, and private drought preparedness and monitoring programs in existence."

This bill also stresses improvement of the national integrated drought monitoring system by enhancing monitoring and climate and water supply forecasting efforts, funding specific research activities, and developing an effective drought information delivery system to improve the flow of information to decision makers at all levels of government and to the private sector. A preliminary study to assess gaps in the current drought monitoring network and compile a prototype of a more comprehensive, integrated national drought information system was recently completed with support from the NOAA, under the leadership of the WGA (2004).

Actions taken since 1996 to improve drought management in the United States have had little effect to date—especially at the federal level, as verified by the federal response to drought conditions in 2000-2003. Instead, states have continued to be the most progressive, a trend that began in the early to mid-1980s. Thirty-six states have drought plans and another four states are at various stages of plan development, most with a focus on mitigation. Other states have made substantial progress in drought plan revision, again emphasizing mitigation. Federal agencies are now speaking the new language of drought management, and phrases like "improved coordination and cooperation," "increased emphasis on mitigation and preparedness," and "building nonfederal/federal partnerships" have become commonplace. However, the existing institutional inertia of federal emergency response programs and the expectations of the recipients of those assistance programs encourage drought management to remain in a reactive, crisis management mode. The mentality of most state and federal government agencies clearly remains response oriented. Whether federal and state policy makers clearly understand the scope of the changes that will be required to invoke the new paradigm of risk management in the United States is not apparent at this time. When drought conditions exist, especially in election years, drought relief is one method members of Congress use to send money home to their constituents. The true test of whether we are making progress will be if the Congress passes the National Drought Preparedness Act and the USDA rapidly implements its various components. State governments and special interest groups must show their support for this bill, both when Congress is deliberating it and following its passage. Hopefully, this bill will provide the authority necessary to direct federal agencies to modify existing policies and programs to emphasize mitigation and preparedness, thus effectively shifting funding from crisis to risk management and implementing the new paradigm.

Only time will determine the dedication of the nation to this new approach to drought management. A continuation of widespread, severe drought in the next few years would certainly engender greater support for this new paradigm and help the United States continue down the path to risk management. The political will to change the way we manage drought appears to be genuine but may evaporate quickly if a series of wet years occurs. Changing the momentum of the past is a difficult obstacle to overcome. It is critical for the scientific community and the public to hold policy makers to this commitment.

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