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National Governors' Association Resolution NR-20
Time limited (effective Winter Meeting 1997 - Winter Meeting 1999)

Federal Response to Drought

20.1 Preamble

Drought is not an uncommon event. It is always occurring to some degree somewhere in the world. Throughout the history of the United States, widespread regional droughts have taken place periodically. Beginning in 1992, a severe and long-term drought became evident in the western United States. In 1996 the extreme drought conditions in all or parts of Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and other western states caused a broad variety of impacts including life-threatening situations, as well as financial burdens for both government and individuals.

The drought impacts experienced during 1996 in the western states include:

  • Extremely dry conditions that led to numerous forest and rangeland fires that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to fight, burned millions of acres of land, destroyed hundreds of homes, devastated many communities, and eliminated critical habitats for wildlife and grazing lands for livestock;
  • Environmental impacts ranging from critically low stream flows that threatened endangered species of fish to reduced water quality caused by sediment-loading from ash and postfire runoff;
  • Economic losses in several sectors of the economy, including timber, tourism, and especially in the agriculture and ranching communities (Texas agriculture losses exceeded $2.1 billion); and
  • Threats to and failures of municipal water supplies, causing many communities to institute water restrictions and rationing measures.

Unlike floods, hurricanes, and other sudden natural disasters, the effects of drought creep up over a period of time, sometimes several years. Perhaps as a result of the nature of drought, the federal government's response to this natural disaster has been slow and fragmented. No national policy on drought exists and recent changes in federal programs (e.g., revisions to federal agriculture programs) have exacerbated the impacts of drought for certain sectors. The roles and responsibilities of the variety of federal agencies involved in water supply and quality, agriculture, natural resource management and protection, and emergency response and assistance are often unclear and poorly coordinated.

Federal agencies currently have the authority to operate thirty programs that provide some type of assistance to individuals, localities, or states during drought conditions. However, many of these programs have been temporarily suspended, are too cumbersome or restrictive to be of help, or are not being adequately funded. Moreover, most of these programs are bandages to help after drought has made its impact, rather than support for preventative actions that can reduce the impact of drought.

The federal government needs to examine how it prepares for and responds to widespread drought. It must create and implement a national drought policy that provides appropriate support to those impacted and must promote contingency and mitigation planning to reduce the impacts of droughts before they occur. States must work to plan for and implement measures that will provide relief from and mitigate the effects of droughts, which will inevitably occur. However, there is a need for a comprehensive, integrated response to drought at the federal level to support states' efforts and, when necessary, provide assistance to states and individuals in an effective and efficient manner.

20.2 Recommendations

The nation's governors encourage congress to pursue the development and implementation of a national drought policy that establishes a vision of how the federal government will provide a comprehensive, integrated response to drought in the future without diminishing the rights of states to control water through their laws. A national policy, developed in consultation with state, local, and tribal governments, should identify the appropriate response to drought by the federal government. In addition, it should clearly identify and integrate the roles and responsibilities of each federal agency; state, local, and tribal governments; and private citizens, with regard to monitoring and detection, planning and mitigation, and provision of technical, financial, and other assistance when emergency assistance is necessary, a comprehensive and integrated approach should be developed so that aid can be provided in a timely, effective, and efficient manner. The policy should seek to focus federal response activities and information so that states have a single contact to access information and assistance.

To implement a national drought policy that will improve the efficiency and coordination of the federal government's response to drought, the governors believe a federal interagency drought group should be established, such a group should include representatives of multiple federal agencies (e.g., The Federal Emergency Management Agency, The U.S. Department of Agriculture, The Small Business Administration, The U.S. Department of Commerce, and The U.S. Department of the Interior) and be guided by a designated lead federal agency.

Finally, the nation's governors encourage the federal government to strongly support and actively participate in the Western States' Regional Drought Policy and Coordinating Council, as recommended in the 1996 Western Governors' Association (WGA) Drought Response Action Plan. The Regional Drought Policy and Coordinating Council would develop sustainable policy, monitor drought conditions and state responses, identify impacts and issues for resolution, facilitate interstate activities, and work in partnership with the federal government to address needs brought on by drought. If supported, the Western Drought Policy and Coordinating Council will serve as a model for drought mitigation and response for other regions of the country and provide valuable input into the development of a national drought policy.

Updated May 7, 1998

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