Drought Hazards (10-12-06)

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Drought, which is defined as a deficiency in precipitation that results in a water shortage over an extended period of time, has severe economic and environmental effects. Although droughts are most common and most severe in the western U.S., they periodically occur in all fifty states. Additionally, regional events can have national consequences, with droughts affecting agriculture, transportation, energy, and forestry. Drought response in the U.S. is estimated to cost up to $8 billion per year.

Over the past two years, the U.S. has experienced drier than average atmospheric conditions. According to a statement released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 48 percent of the contiguous U.S. experienced moderate to extreme drought conditions in August of 2002. These dry conditions have led to low municipal, industrial, commercial, and agricultural water supplies. The administration and Congress are now considering steps to mitigate the current problem and to prepare for future water demands.

Recent Action

Senate and House Approve Drought Legislation
During the last week in September, the Senate and the House approved bills establishing a National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The system would create an early-warning system for droughts and improved drought mitigation and response tactics. According to a Senate press release, President Bush has also expressed his support for a NIDIS system.

NOAA reported that droughts cost $6 to $8 billion in estimated losses to the U.S. economy each year. The bill's co-sponsor Senator Ben Nelson (D-NB) said the program would take pressure off Congress to pass emergency aid when crops fail during dry years. "We could mitigate losses and ultimately limit the need for large drought relief packages," he said.

The Senate bill (S. 2751), also co-sponsored by Pete V. Domenici (R-NM), would authorize $59 million through fiscal year 2012 for the program. The House bill (H.R. 5136), co-sponsored by Ralph Hall (R-TX) and Mark Udall (D-CO) would authorize $81 million through 2012. (10/12/06)

Previous Action

Drought Monitoring Legislation Moving Through House and Senate
The Environment, Technology, and Standards Subcommittee of the House Science Committee passed the National Integrated Drought Information System Act of 2006 (H.R.5136) on May 4, 2006. The bill, which was introduced in early April by Representatives Ralph Hall (R-TX) and Mark Udall (D-CO) would authorize $94 million over five years to establish a National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) with the goal of improving drought monitoring, prediction, mitigation, and response. The full Science Committee is expected to consider H.R.5136 later this month.

The main component of the NIDIS legislation is the creation of a drought early warning system that integrates scientific information about precipitation conditions and provides assessments of the timing and severity of droughts. Additionally, the legislation involves improving communication about drought predictions with federal, state, local, and tribal governments and the public to improve decision making. NIDIS would also support federally-funded drought research. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) would be responsible for creating and coordinating NIDIS.

A Senate version of the legislation, S. 2751, was introduced on May 5, 2006 by Senator Ben Nelson (D-NE). "The research done upfront in monitoring drought trends will help our capabilities to mitigate and respond to its devastating effects in a much more effective manner," Nelson said in a press release accompanying the legislation. "Planning for drought and implementing a risk management type strategy will save taxpayers billions in reduced disaster assistance in the future."

More information on H.R.5136 is available from the House Science Committee, Representative Ralph Hall, and Representative Mark Udall. (5/8/06)

Senate Approves Extension of Emergency Drought Relief Act
On December 16, 2005, the Senate passed S.648, a bill to amend the Reclamation States Emergency Drought Relief Act of 1991. Originally introduced by Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR) in March 2005, S.648 would extend the authority for drought assistance in western states through September 2010. The bill has been referred to the House and is awaiting action by the Water and Power Subcommittee of the House Committee on Resources.

For a press release on the legislation from Senator Gordon Smith, click here. (5/8/06)


Drought mitigation and planning has traditionally been focused at the state rather than the federal level. As a result, drought preparation has been fragmented across the country. In 1976, an extreme drought developed across many western states. At the time, no state had developed a drought response plan, and the unusually dry conditions exposed the country's vulnerabilities to water shortages. During the 1976-1977 drought, the Western Regional Drought Action Task Force was created to improve drought planning, mitigation, and response. However, by 1982, only New York, South Dakota, and Colorado had formal drought plans, and by 1996 only eleven western states were prepared to deal with drought conditions. State drought planning accelerated following a severe drought in 1995-1996 that affected areas across the southwestern U.S. As of January 2006, 38 states have developed formal drought plans, two states delegate drought planning to local government, and two states are in the process of developing a plan. Only eight states, primarily located in the wet Southeast and Great Lakes areas of the U.S., have no drought plans.

Action at the federal level has primarily centered on drought relief assistance, beginning with recovery efforts during the extreme drought, known as the Dust Bowl, of the 1930s. Four extensive droughts developed in the Great Plains area between 1930 and 1940, causing widespread dust storms, agricultural failure, poverty, unemployment and devastation to the nation's economy. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated as President in 1933, he took a number of steps to increase the federal role in drought relief, including providing millions of dollars in aid to farms and individuals, distributing surplus food and clothing to those in need, and creating millions of jobs. In 1935, he formed the Drought Relief Service (DRS) to coordinate drought relief activities, including buying cattle and other commodities from farmers. Congress also played a role in drought relief efforts by establishing the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which taught farmers proper techniques to prevent soil erosion and paid supplements to farmers who practiced soil conservation techniques. Overall, historians estimate that the federal government provided about $1 billion in 1930s dollars in drought relief and recovery.

Today, federal drought relief assistance activities are carried out by the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Reclamation States Emergency Drought Relief Act of 1991. The act authorized the Secretary of the Interior to provide loans to farmers and urban areas to assist in overcoming drought conditions. Authorization for the act expired in September, 2005.

Sources: National Drought Mitigation Center; Western Governor's Association; Public Broadcasting Service Online; George Bush Presidential Library; House Science Committee website; Press Releases for Gordon Smith, Ben Nelson, Mark Udall, and Ralph Hall.

Contributed by Jenny Fisher 2006 AGI/AAPG Spring Intern and Rachel Bleshman 2006 AGI/AAPG Fall Intern.

Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.

Last updated on October 12, 2006.