Stateline Story

Persistent Drought Prompting New State Action Plans

  • May 29, 2000
  • By John Nagy

Barring a series of unforeseen spring soakers, states in the Midwest and Sunbelt face a drought that could be just as harsh as the one that devastated the eastern U.S. last year, offering many of them the chance to test their  drought action plans for the first time.

Drought itself is not worsening, but the U.S. is becoming more vulnerable than ever because of growing water demands and rising standards of environmental awareness, says climate expert Dr. Michael J. Hayes of the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC).

NDMC, a congressionally-created drought information clearinghouse based at the University of Nebraska, counsels state water officials to initiate long-term drought preparedness or "mitigation" plans that improve on standard response measures like rationing water or reminding smokers to carefully dispose of butts after drought is an established fact.

Last week, the federal National Drought Policy Commission officially backed that message. It issued a report that recommends a strategic shift from relief to preparation in setting a federal drought policy that would coordinate vital drought services and information with state and local preparedness efforts. So far, only New Mexico has installed a coordination program at the state level, but a handful of other states are already on their way.

According to NDMC, 36 states have established or are working on a formal, long-term drought action plan emphasizing either preparation or response, leaving 14 to react to severe water shortages with a patchwork of local plans, emergency announcements and, ultimately, heavier reliance on costly federal assistance.

Now, building on a search for adequate drought protocols that began twenty years ago, water officials in several states are exploring solutions that may sound alarms early enough to stretch supplies through a prolonged dry spell and avoid disaster.

New Mexico has set the early example. While never a Garden of Eden, New Mexico has been hit hard by water shortages in recent years. An early statewide drought response effort in 1995-6 had little effect, sending water officials back to the drawing board at the behest of Gov. Gary Johnson. In 1998, Johnson established a state drought task force charged to develop "an integrated approach to minimize the impacts of drought on [New Mexico's] people and resources."

The result, says Charles Caruso, who oversees design and construction for the State Water Engineer's Office, was a coordinated effort among state and federal officials to anticipate drought conditions and disseminate information ahead of an actual shortage.

Since state drought conditions are rarely uniform, officials divided the state into eight climatological districts, each of which is monitored for early warning signs, such as declining streamflow and soil moisture. Four impact assessment teams advise clients ranging from farmers to municipal water authorities to wildlife managers and the tourism industry on preparations. Such innovations are particularly critical to irrigation districts, which make delivery commitments as long as three months in advance.

Despite careful planning, New Mexico has continued to struggle, particularly with drought-induced wildfires. Precipitation throughout much of the state has hovered at 15 to 20 percent of normal levels since October and the task force placed the southern part of the state on emergency status in mid-April. With a number of wildfires raging in May, including the prescribed burn that went out of control at Bandolier National Monument, Gov. Johnson declared a state of emergency and asked President Clinton to do the same.

Nonetheless, Caruso says the plan so far has been "very successful. It has created an attitude of drought awareness in the state that you need [in order] to think about these things and mitigate them before they occur."

Several states, encouraged by New Mexico's lead and the recommendations of advisory panels like the Western Drought Coordination Council formed by a coalition of organizations including the Western Governor's Association, are taking the cue.

Hayes notes that Nebraska, Texas and Utah have all committed to new action plans favoring preparedness over response, while Arizona, Georgia and Hawaii are working on long-term drought plans. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has listed part or all of these states as vulnerable to severe drought in 2000.

In an effort to learn from last year's crisis, Indiana launched a drought action committee in the fall and anticipates completing an action plan in June. Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening set up drought panels to develop a long-term plan that could avert the need for the kind of last-resort, statewide water restrictions that rankled Marylanders last August and drew only mixed enforcement support from the state's 23 counties. Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan activated a committee with similar goals on May 24.

Some drought experts see the ultimate benefit of mitigation in its potential to reduce the financial burdens of water shortages. "People are tired of some of the high costs that the hazards are causing right now. So I think this is hopefully fueling an effort toward more mitigation efforts," Hayes said.

But although cost savings by shifting from relief to preparation are a common sense benefit of drought mitigation plans, it is too soon, and perhaps too difficult, to demonstrate that they have taken place. For one thing, the swarm of federal and state agencies involved in drought relief makes final figures hard to calculate. Federal estimates for last year's drought expenses stretch from $1 billion to $6 billion. And NDMC says that states do not currently maintain total cost estimates for drought. "No one's doing that, unfortunately," Hayes said, and that will make it more difficult to measure savings down the road.

The fourteen states that currently have no statewide drought plan according to NDMC are Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Of these, Hayes says he is aware that Louisiana and Massachusetts have "indicated interest" during the last year in developing long-term drought plans. California and Florida explicitly delegate drought planning to local authorities.

Meanwhile, signs of dangerous dryness, residual and impending, are clear across the country:

  • Nebraska officials placed 85 districts on the list of those most likely to face a drinking water shortage and six counties have now begun water rationing.
  • Kentucky issued a water shortage watch for an additional 37 counties on May 24, while 23 counties have remained on alert since June 1999. The entire state is classified as being in a condition of "moderate drought."
  • In March, the National Weather Service released it's first-ever spring drought forecast, instead of its customary round of flood warnings.
  • Three of the five Great Lakes Erie, Huron and Michigan have dropped three feet since 1997, more than correcting the near record highs achieved that year.
  • Missouri recorded its driest April, while Arizona sustained its second driest October-April span on record.
  • Gov. Jeb Bush has enlisted the Florida National Guard to help fight the wildfires that are raging throughout the central part of the state and Georgia officials report the loss of over 40,000 acres to wildfires since the beginning of the year.
  • U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman added counties in Mississippi, New York, Texas and Washington to the list of federally-recognized disaster areas in April and May. As of January, nearly two out of every three counties in the U.S. were on the list, making farmers eligible for emergency loans.