Drought indices assimilate thousands of bits of data on rainfall, snowpack, streamflow, and other water supply indicators into a comprehensible big picture. A drought index value is typically a single number, far more useful than raw data for decision making.
There are several indices that measure how much precipitation for a given period of time has deviated from historically established norms. Although none of the major indices is inherently superior to the rest in all circumstances, some indices are better suited than others for certain uses. For example, the Palmer Drought Severity Index has been widely used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to determine when to grant emergency drought assistance, but the Palmer is better when working with large areas of uniform topography. Western states, with mountainous terrain and the resulting complex regional microclimates, find it useful to supplement Palmer values with other indices such as the Surface Water Supply Index, which takes snowpack and other unique conditions into account.
The National Drought Mitigation Center is using a newer index, the Standardized Precipitation Index, to monitor moisture supply conditions. Distinguishing traits of this index are that it identifies emerging droughts months sooner than the Palmer Index and that it is computed on various time scales.
Most water supply planners find it useful to consult one or more indices before making a decision. What follows is an introduction to each of the major drought indices in use in the United States and in Australia.
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