Getting Out of Hot Water Before Its Too Late: The Drought Planning Process
The old lesson of the doomed frog refusing to jump from a pot of water as it’s slowly brought to a boil may be a good analogy for drought planners.
“We tend to focus on drought when it is upon us,” said James R. Lyons, assistant secretary of agriculture and the environment, in 1994. “We’re then forced to react—to respond to immediate needs, to provide what are often more costly remedies, and to attempt to balance competing interests in a charged atmosphere. That’s not good policy. We must anticipate the inevitable, that drought will come and go, and then take an approach that seeks to minimize the effects of drought when it inevitably occurs.”
There is little that is abnormal about a drought; it occurs and recurs in all climates, happening nearly everywhere on earth. The features of drought, though, vary across regions. This tends to make a definition problematic: It must take into account region, individual area needs, and disciplinary perspectives. Therefore, according to some definitions, what is a drought may vary from Libya, with drought being less than 180 millimeters of annual rainfall, to Bali, where six straight days without rain may be considered drought conditions.
Annual rainfall alone can also fail as an indicator if more information is not provided. Both Sacramento, CA, and Bismarck, ND, receive slightly more than 15 inches of rain per year. Sacramento, however, receives most of its rain during the winter; Bismarck is just the opposite. But if those 15 inches in either place come at the wrong time of year, the results can be disastrous: Sacramento suffers without winter snow pack to keep reservoirs full during normally dry summers, and Bismarck’s vegetation and agricultural crops fail without frequent summer thunderstorms.
Generally, though, a deficiency in precipitation over an extended time period with resulting shortages in water for groups or activities in that area, as well as the ecosystem itself, is an adequate definition. But the criteria used to form the definition of drought can hardly be limited to it being simply a physical condition; its effects can touch unexpected sectors of both human society and the natural world.
Planning for drought is something that has gained support at all levels. Only New York, Colorado, and South Dakota had drought plans in 1980. Now some 38 states either are developing a plan or have one in place. The high cost of drought, socially, environmentally, and monetarily, has driven this interest.
The process of drought planning itself has evolved since the early ’80s. It is easy for that process to become both confusing and daunting. With even the definition of drought unclear, its onset and termination may also be hard to determine.
Photo: Dr. Ken Dewey, High Plains Regional Climate Center
The Platte River along I-80 and Nebraska Highway 281 near Grand Island
When it comes to monitoring drought, there can be challenges as well, according to the Web site for the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC) in Lincoln, NE: “Determining which indicators to use poses more difficulties for planners: should they rely on data collected for specific parameters (such as stream flow and snow pack), or should they select one or more indices, which incorporate and weigh various types of data in various combinations? Equally important in choosing these indicators is a consideration of the type or types of water shortage facing the planner; as an example, an index or parameters well-suited to agricultural concerns are of limited use to urban planners.”
The National Drought Mitigation Center has been in existence since 1995. Initial impetus for its inception came in the wake of a western drought from 1987 through the early 1990s. A 1994 Western States Drought Conference in Portland, OR, suggested the formation of such a center.
“What we try to stress with officials from around the United States, and the public, is that droughts need to be prepared for before they occur,” says Mike Hayes, associate director at the NDMC. “Hopefully by doing that you will reduce future drought impacts. Responding to a drought while in ‘crisis mode’ often means that responses are neither timely nor effective. There has been something of an explosion of state drought planning in recent years, partly because there have been quite a few droughts around the country lately. The states have gone into a drought situation, realized they didn’t have a plan, and then come out of the drought seeing the need. Therefore, they’ll go ahead and develop one. Sometimes they will go into another drought within a few years and they’ll revise their plan to make it even better.”
The NDMC sees states in a whole variety of stages in drought planning. Some states are taking the lead with the idea of mitigation. These states are taking necessary protective steps to prepare for a drought during non-drought periods.
“As a good example of one protective step, better monitoring systems are really important,” says Hayes. “If the monitoring is done, you will have a much better idea going into a drought exactly how severe that drought is. Also, changing policies at the legislative level to reward good stewardship is another good mitigation strategy as are any water conservation programs.”
Drought Coordination Council Report
The Western Drought Coordination Council, with participants from both the NDMC and the US Bureau of Reclamation, assembled a Preparedness and Mitigation Working Group and report in 1998. In their report, How to Reduce Drought Risk, they identified six steps in planning to reduce drought risk.
Photo:R. Swanson, USGS
Laramie RIver near Bosler August 13, 2002
An important first step in the drought planning process almost sounds too simple to be mentioned, but it is important: Assemble the right group of people and supply them with the adequate data to make informed, efficient, and fair decisions pertaining to drought risk. Public input, consideration, and discussion in dealing with drought issues ensure that decisions made will be both better understood and participated in. The least that such inclusion of public input will do is build public trust and understanding.
The second step is assessing the impact of a drought by identifying direct consequences such as reduced crop yields, livestock losses, and reservoir depletion. Direct outcomes often have secondary consequences such as bankruptcies, dislocations, physical or emotional stress, or forced sale of family assets or land.
These scenarios lead into the third step, ranking the drought impacts. The report suggests, wisely: “To be effective and equitable, the ranking should take into consideration concerns such as cost, areal extent, trends over time, public opinion, fairness, and the ability of the affected area to recover.
“The general public, community advisory committees, and groups of relevant scientists and policy makers can be included in the process of ranking. … However, it is recommended that as many groups as possible be represented for informed and equitable policy formulation.”
Planners should keep in mind the following in choosing the highest-priority impacts, perhaps by asking the following:
Which impacts are important to the affected individual’s or group’s way of life?
If impacts are not distributed evenly, should hard-hit groups receive greater attention?
Is there a trend of particular impacts becoming more of a problem than others?
What results from this is the development of a list of the highest-priority impacts. This is best for both the region in question and all those participating.
Step four is vulnerability assessment. This provides a framework in pointing out social, economic, and environmental problems associated with drought. Importantly, underlying causes of vulnerability are studied, rather than simply the negative impacts triggered by a drought.
As an example beyond poor rainfall in an agricultural area, things such as choices individual farmers have made now come into play. A farmer may not have selected drought-resistant seeds because they were too expensive or not thought useful. This helps in understanding the big picture with vulnerabilities: both the vulnerabilities and reasons for them. Therefore, when a possible drought event such as a farm foreclosure occurs, a whole series of underlying causes must be studied to understand both drought and vulnerability.
As the study points out: “It is necessary [in the study and understanding of vulnerability], to have the right mix of people working on the project that have knowledge of the relevant topics.”
An area’s vulnerability factors can be as varied as wide precipitation variation, passive drought “acceptance,” the existence of other natural disasters in the area, the lack of political will, abdication of responsibility, revenue instability, or simply a lack of public awareness.
The above step leads naturally into the report’s final two steps: action identification and developing a “to do” list. These two final steps lead in the direction of taking positive mitigation efforts and working out what will or will not work in long-term mitigation or risk management efforts.
“This process has the potential to lead to the identification of effective and appropriate drought risk reduction activities,” concludes the report, “rather than ad-hoc responses or un-researched mitigation plans that may have little effect on reducing drought impact in the future.
“Drought mitigation actions have always been difficult to identify because of the lack of systematic approaches to do so. Because vulnerability is dynamic, it would be beneficial to periodically complete a drought risk analysis to assess how vulnerability is changing and to maintain an appropriate level of preparedness.”
Statewide Monitoring System
So where do the states stand now with their drought planning processes and mitigating drought? Many appear to be in much better shape than they were in the 1980s. Alabama recently has come up with a high-tech solution to include in its drought mitigation plan.
In April 2006, Alabama announced the decision to implement, starting in July 2006, a Statewide Drought Monitoring System. It features a network of five observation wells transmitting groundwater level data on a real-time basis using satellite telemetry. The wells are located in areas of aquifer recharge as well as extensive agricultural use. The state hopes to set up a 25-well network over the next five years.
Information gathered will allow for observation of the onset and duration of drought conditions in groundwater. Well water level data will be collected automatically and transmitted by satellite telemetry every four hours to the US Geological Survey (USGS) and shown on the USGS Alabama Water Science Web site. Detailed information from Alabama as well as the US gathered from the well monitoring system can be seen at http://watermonitor.gov/.
“This program is one that received a lot of interest from the news media,” says Christy Rhodes, Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries communications director. “It even helped get the word out that we are already having a drought in the southern part of Alabama. It is definitely a new development for this region of the country.”
Several governmental agencies have been working together to establish the statewide drought monitoring system. The Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries; the Choctawhatchee, Pea, and Yellow Rivers Watershed Management Authority; the Office of Water Resources at ADECA; the Geological Survey of Alabama; and the United States Geological Survey are funding the project.
Seeing the Big Picture
Mikes Hayes took part in a 2001 study of drought impact around large South Carolina lakes. “It was amazing what a local impact the drought had on businesses, such as motels and sports-related industries, around those lakes,” says Hayes. “Returning to the larger scale of things no one even noticed this impact. The people involved in the tourism industry had great difficulty receiving assistance during the drought. If they were agricultural business they would have had a much better chance of receiving assistance.
“As a result of that, Senator John Kerry has been promoting the idea that tourism businesses need assistance during droughts. He just got a bill through Congress—within the past few months—and signed by the President, in which tourism-related industries will be eligible for drought relief assistance.”
Hope Mizzell, South Carolina state climatologist, adds that part of the re-licensing for dams on lakes now involves the inclusion of a drought plan. “That’s something that wasn’t around 50 years ago,” says Mizzell. The federal ERC license process has changed over the past 50 years with emphasis shifting away from a license focused solely on generating electricity from hydropower to a balance between producing electricity and its impact on the environment. The re-licensing process addresses not only the generation of electricity but also the natural resources that may be affected by a project’s operation.
South Carolina’s drought plan designates that there are four stages to drought in the state. This plan includes guidelines on what drought indicators should be used to determine if those stages of drought have been reached.
The state’s drought plan was first developed in 1985 and then amended in 2000. The drought response agency is established by drought management areas composed of 48 local members and five state members.
“One of the things that we changed between 1985 and 2000 included what drought indicators we were using,” says Mizzell. “In 1985 we were still using only the Palmer Drought Index. We also added committee members and changed the appointment process. It’s now a rather rigorous process.”
Instead of just one indicator, the Palmer Drought Index, which looks at precipitation, temperature, and some equations for figuring evaporation and runoff, the state now uses the Crop Moisture Index, the Keetch-Byrum Forest Fire Index, US Drought Monitor, stream flows, and groundwater levels, among others.
South Carolina’s record drought from 1998 to 2002 forced the drought response committee to realize the impossibility of making one declaration to fit the needs of everyone, according to Mizzell. “A farmer may be in a different stage of drought than someone worried about forest fires or someone running a water system,” says Mizzell. “As a result, we’ve been building up and making stronger our local drought ordinances in an effort to make them work better together with the state response in order to mitigate the impacts of drought.”
Local triggers could be lake elevation or stream flow levels. “One thing that I think we are doing very well in our state is plan integration,” says Mizzell. “We must be certain that areas downstream are paying careful attention to conditions in the entire basin, whether that is reservoirs in other parts of the state or up in North Carolina. Water systems that purchase water from other systems should work to ensure that their drought plans and drought indicators are in line with the source water system.”
Mizzell makes the important point that during the record drought of 1998–2002 for the first time South Carolinians witnessed the fact that they could run out of water. The state was faced with the threat of running out of water in the Pee Dee River basin, which would have major implications for the health and safety of several million people, as Mizzell reported to the South Carolina American Waterworks Association.
“Those in need of water in South Carolina had to come to some sort of agreement with the individuals in North Carolina who controlled the flow of water into the Pee Dee Basin. Past conflicts had to be ignored, and an agreement made on how the water would be managed in the reservoirs to release enough to keep the salt water back and the industries open in South Carolina, while saving as much as possible in the reservoirs in case the drought lasted another six months or one year.
“Once the reservoirs were dry, the only flow in South Carolina would be run of the river, and 400 cubic feet per second wasn’t close to our minimum need of 900 cubic feet per second. Something that could take years in a normal setting took a few weeks. Two power companies [Alcoa and Progress Energy], two states [North Carolina and South Carolina], one federal regulatory agency [FERC], and over 20 industries and water systems came to an agreement [not a gridlock] on how the water in the Yadkin–Pee Dee Basin would be managed. All parties involved should be commended for their leadership.”
South Carolina’s drought planning process is ongoing. The state is trying to emphasize stronger coordination between state and local drought mitigation, according to Mizzell.
No Generic Plan
Delaware’s Stewart Lovell, manager of Delaware’s Water Supply Section, Division of Water Resources, has been involved with drought planning for over two decades. Having been involved with three drought crises in seven years forced the state to go through many iterations of the original drought response plan developed in 1983, according to Lovell.
Photo: Sally Holt
Nevada Bureau of Reclamation-LC Region
“The authors of the original plan had zero experience in what it was like to actually go through a serious, severe, prolonged drought,” says Lovell. “At the same time that we were going through the process, we were also living the experience. We were given the opportunity to come up with a very refined but super-customized set of procedures, guidelines, rules, and indicators for our area only.”
The plan Delaware came up with was just the opposite of a generic plan. It applied to Delaware only. “That was the hard lesson we learned,” says Lovell. “These various state drought plans tend to be very close in nature to each other. That’s the nature of agencies: find out what another state is doing and then simply adopt that.”
Because Delaware’s outdated drought plans had caused serious disruption to important outdoor-oriented businesses such as landscaping, turf installers, nursery operators, and golf courses, the state was driven to focus on obtaining wholesale revision to its drought operating plans. It took five years and enduring the worst drought on record, in 2002, for major revisions to occur. The droughts Delaware experienced in 1995, 1999, and 2002 were all almost identical.
They all started in late July and ended in October, and the final year’s drought was the worse. “The old plans, which were patterned after what other states in the Delaware River Basin had used, simply didn’t work for us,” says Lovell. “All those states had basically taken verbatim what the Delaware River Basin Commission had adopted. It was complete utter failure for us when we went to implement it.”
Delaware has now come full circle. It has a plan carefully designed to meet the specific needs of its state. Despite the fact that it is the second smallest state, it still had to tailor very carefully the plans for the area hardest hit during those droughts. In the growing northern section of the state, space was actually found for the building of a backup reservoir. Lovell considers his state to now have one of the most thorough and comprehensive drought plans in the United States: But as with other states around the country, it was born out of both desperate conditions and a search for the best long-term solutions.
Peter Hildebrandt writes extensively on engineering and scientific subjects.