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5 states began drought plan updates in 2018

January 31, 2019

Out of the 45 state drought plans in the drought center’s database, 25 plans are more than 10 years old.

By Theresa Jedd, NDMC post-doctoral research associate, and RaeAnna Hartsgrove, NDMC graduate research assistant

Detecting emerging drought occupies thousands of scientists around the world, but monitoring the physical environment is the easy part, or so says Mark Svoboda, NDMC director and one of the world’s leading experts on drought monitoring. He adds, “The hard part is knowing what you’re going to do about it.”

At least five U.S. states, an unusually high number, began drought plan updates in 2018. “Last year was especially busy in assisting states with drought planning and hopefully the trend continues during 2019,” said Cody Knutson, the NDMC Drought Planning coordinator. Prompted by economic losses from recent prolonged droughts, combined with federal hazard planning requirements, Colorado, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Utah have all undertaken plan updates.

In the United States, authority for water and drought planning rests with state, tribal and local governments. The number of states with drought plans, or plans for coping with drought included in water, climate or hazard plans, has steadily increased since the drought center was established in 1995. But for the 45 states with drought plans in the drought center’s database, 25 plans are more than 10 years old, and may be starting to gather dust.

Ideally, planning documents would keep pace with the changing climate, said Taryn Finnessey, senior climate change specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board. While seasonal and yearly changes may sometimes go unnoticed, shifts between decades are notable. The drought center also recommends that updates account for changes in water use and vulnerability.

Planning can significantly reduce losses. Finnessey underscored that drought is an ongoing management issue and that drought effects can linger, especially in the agricultural sector. For example, for livestock producers in a semiarid state, “drought doesn’t stop hurting just because we start to get rain or we start to get snow, it continues to hurt because people are losing genetics and it takes decades, if not generations, to rebuild stock, and so we can’t expect to bounce back immediately.”

Although agriculture is often one of the first sectors affected, it is far from being the only one.  After joining the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Luigi Romolo, Minnesota’s state climatologist, took a close look at his state’s drought plan. He said what he found was unsettling: “I quickly recognized a need to update the plan since there wasn’t a lot of detail at all about the drought hazard in general, what it means for the state, or what the general impacts are.” Though the state is strong in water resources, he said the plan needs more information about how drought affects all sectors of the state’s economy. Though they’re just getting started, Romolo has taken the lead to move forward with a plan update before the next drought disaster strikes.

Mark Shafer, Associate State Climatologist at the Oklahoma Climatological Survey, emphasized the need to keep up with the latest in drought monitoring capacity. New monitoring capacity has been developed since his state’s drought plan was created in 1997. Shafer said, “The U.S. Drought Monitor did not exist at this time and will need to be incorporated into the new plan.” He added that expertise in drought policies or drought management is limited within the state, so he turns to regional and national planning initiatives such as the NOAA Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments (RISA) program.

In some cases, the urgency of dealing with ongoing droughts can prompt a more rapid update process. In New Mexico, which has had some degree of drought nearly continuously for the past 20 years, the Office of the State Engineer’s Water Use and Conservation Bureau was directed to update the drought plan. “We were told to work on revising the drought plan in late August and we were asked to get it done by the end of the calendar year,” said Molly Magnuson, Water Use and Conservation Bureau Chief. 

Utah and Colorado are conducting sector-based economic impact assessments for the 2018 droughts. In Utah, a multi-state workshop helped start the process. Candice Hasenyager oversaw the Utah Division of Water ResourcesDrought Response Plan Workshop in July 2018. She said, “When you only face drought every seven years, there can be a long gap between evaluating the impacts and how we address them, and that’s one of the things we want to achieve in our new plan. We are not waiting seven years to look at the plan. We’re meeting every year or twice a year, whether there’s a drought or not, so that it doesn’t catch us off guard.”

The NDMC has expanded its collection of drought planning documents to include water, hazard and climate plans. Visit the NDMC’s collection of state-level drought-related plans: drought.unl.edu/droughtplanning/InfobyState.aspx