National Drought Mitigation Center


Nemaha NRD drought scenario exercise a step toward addressing competing water uses

March 23, 2016

Nebraska’s Nemaha Natural Resources District held a drought scenario workshop in March 2016, walking stakeholders through progressively more intense stages of drought to anticipate impacts, envision responses, find gaps and identify mitigation measures.

The NRD can “work with public water suppliers and irrigators so that they have more advanced information to make decisions before it is too late,” said Bob Hilske, Nemaha NRD general manager.

Nebraska’s 23 NRDs, which are governed by local, elected boards, are authorized by law to regulate groundwater in the state, but as one participant noted, they can’t just tell people to stop pumping. During drought in 2012 in some parts of the state, the water table fell too low to use some domestic and municipal wells, while surrounding irrigators continued to pump water.

The need to balance water use between villages and irrigators contributed to the decision to hold a drought scenario exercise, Hilske said. He added that the event went well, but he would have liked a few irrigators to attend.

Participants included NRD personnel, water system managers, Farm Service Agency representatives and more. At each stage of a hypothetical but realistic drought, the organizers asked participants to consider certain questions. The NRD worked with JEO Consulting Group to organize the exercise.

At Stage 1, pre-drought, when the U.S. Drought Monitor showed abnormally dry conditions for the Nemaha NRD in December, organizers asked how each organization’s internal drought protocols would be activated, whether the organization communicates with the NRD, and what information would be used for decision making at that stage.

At Stage 2, Moderate Drought the following June, the questions were similar but more extensive: What is your organization’s typical response, what other groups are you coordinating with, are there any political considerations, what kind of communication is taking place with key audiences, and what information are you using for decision making? As conditions grew more extreme in subsequent stages, participants were asked the same questions, and the exercise progressed until participants had run through their entire spectrum of responses.

Water providers agreed that little action would be required during abnormally dry conditions, but that first steps to take would include issuing a water watch, increasing conservation education and messaging through a variety of means, and keeping an eye on the water table to see whether it was dropping. As dryness progressed to drought, water suppliers would be keeping a closer eye on water table levels, and perhaps coordinating with large industrial users or others to manage peak demand by, for example, filling tanks in the evening rather than during the day. Conservation messaging would intensify.

As drought intensified, water suppliers anticipated needing to field inquiries from homeowners being told they need to cut back on watering, while farmers outside town are widely irrigating. Farmers’ wells are typically deeper than municipal wells, and economic and regulatory considerations are different for farmers and for municipalities.

Farm Service Agency personnel said they would begin documenting dry conditions as soon as they were detected, to avoid having to reconstruct it week by week later on if dryness became drought. Once drought actually set in, FSA staff would be busy documenting weather and its impacts on soil moisture, pasture and livestock, and submitting that information to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. As it progressed, they would implement the Livestock Forage Program, consider releasing Conservation Reserve Program lands for haying and grazing, remind producers to submit claims to their insurance companies, and gear up with additional staff if possible and traveling teams to process agricultural producers’ requests for assistance.

An emergency manager who attended said that he wouldn’t necessarily have a large role to play unless there was an official disaster declaration, but that emergency managers could help communicate water conservation messages. He noted that the FSA or the state Department of Agriculture can also request emergency funds from the governor.

Hilske said the NRD will continue to work with villages to help them protect their water supplies during future droughts. The NRD staff provides technical expertise to villages in various ways, including helping villages monitor water levels so they can determine whether they need to switch to backup wells, and helping them decide when they need to install an additional well.

-- Kelly Helm Smith, National Drought Mitigation Center