Summary of Hearings on Natural Hazards Policy


  • July 11, 2013: House Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation Oversight Hearing on “Wildfire and Forest Management”
  • June 13, 2013: House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs Legislative Hearing on H.R. 553, H.R. 1308, H.R. 1399, H.R. 1425, H.R. 1491, and H.R. 2219
  • June 5, 2013: House Committee on Science, Space and Technology Subcommittees on Research and Technology Hearing on Federal Efforts to Reduce the Impacts of Windstorms
  • May 23, 2013: House Committee on Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Energy Hearing on "Restoring U.S. Leadership in Weather Forecasting"
  • July 25, 2012: House Committee on Science, Space and Technology Hearing on “Drought Forecasting, Monitoring, and Decision-making: A Review of the National Integrated Drought Information System”

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House Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation Oversight Hearing on "Wildfire and Forest Management"
July 11, 2013

Witnesses (with links to opening statements):
Doug Lamborn (R-CO)
Scott Tipton (R-CO)
Paul Gosar (R-AZ)
Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ)

Jim Hubbard
Deputy Chief, State and Private Forestry, U.S. Forest Service
James Douglas
Acting Director, Office of Wildland Fire, U.S. Department of the Interior
Phil Rigdon
Deputy Director, Yakama Indian Nation Department of Natural Resources
Joe Duda
Deputy State Forester, Colorado State Forest Service, Colorado State University
Christopher Topik
Director, Restoring America’s Forests, The Nature Conservancy
Chuck Roady
Vice President & General Manager, F.H. Stoltze Land & Lumber Company, Federal Forest Resource Coalition

Committee Members Present (with links to opening statements):
Rob Bishop (R-UT), Subcommittee Chairman
Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), Subcommittee Ranking Member
Doc Hastings (R-WA), Full Committee Chairman
Doug Lamborn (R-CO)
Scott Tipton (R-CO)
Paul Gosar (R-AZ)
Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ)
Steve Daines (R-MT)
Tom McClintock (R-CA)
Peter DeFazio (D-OR)
Mark Amodei (R-NV)

On July 11, 2013, the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation held an oversight hearing on wildfire and forest management. The hearing focused on the need for fuels reduction in national forests and on options for overcoming the barriers to active forest management.

In their opening statements, Subcommittee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT), Subcommittee Ranking Member Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), and Full Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-WA) emphasized the need for active forest management, which has historically included both timber sales and prescribed burns, to reduce the fuel available to wildfires. Grijalva highlighted the importance of stewardship contracting and good neighbor authority in forest management. These programs provide federal land managers with collaborative tools for fuel reduction on federal lands and neighboring private lands.

In the hearing’s first panel, four representatives testified about the impacts of wildfires in their states and discussed options for reducing wildfire risk. Doug Lamborn (R-CO) and Paul Gosar (R-AZ) highlighted barriers to fuels reduction, including insufficient funding for forest management on U. S. Forest Service (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management lands. Lamborn added that lawsuits frequently prevent the USFS from harvesting timber, and Gosar recommended streamlining the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review process required for forest management decisions. Gosar highlighted his proposed legislation, the Catastrophic Wildfire Prevention Act (H.R. 1345), while Scott Tipton (R-CO) touted his Healthy Forest Management and Wildfire Prevention Act (H.R. 818). Both bills aim to decrease wildfire risk by reducing the barriers to fuels reduction in federal forests. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ) described the Four Forest Restoration Initiative in Arizona as an example of a highly effective collaboration between federal, state, and local governments, environmental groups, industry representatives, and other stakeholders, which she views as “a model for helping our forests and our local economies.”

In the second panel, Jim Hubbard, USFS Deputy Chief for State and Private Forestry and James Douglas, Acting Director of the Department of the Interior’s Office of Wildland Fire, stated that wildfire impacts are worsening due to the combination of population expansion into wildland areas and the lengthening and increased severity of fire seasons. Phil Rigdon, Deputy Director of the Yakama Indian Nation Department of Natural Resources, highlighted the imbalance in funding for tribal forests as compared to national forests. Christopher Topik, Director of Restoring America’s Forests for The Nature Conservancy, stated his belief that collaboration between government, industry, conservation groups, scientists, and other stakeholders is essential to reducing wildfire risk, and described the successes of the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program. He also discussed the Fire Adapted Communities Coalition, which works to assess and mitigate communities’ wildfire risk.

Representatives and panelists highlighted benefits of active forest management, with a particular focus on timber sales on federal lands. Representatives Tipton, Gosar, and Tom McKlintok (R-CA) highlighted the economic benefits of timber sales, in addition to the benefits active management can provide in preventing the spread of fire and disease. At Gosar’s encouragement, witness Chuck Roady, Vice President and General Manager of F.H. Stoltze Land & Lumber Company, described the success that many western states have had in funding schools through revenues from timber harvesting on state lands.

Many questions for the panel centered on barriers to active forest management and ways to overcome those barriers. Topik emphasized that collaborative agreements are the most effective way to move forward with timber harvesting. However, Steve Daines (R-MT) and Roady agreed that even collaborative agreements are frequently litigated, undermining their effectiveness. Gosar and Bishop asked Rigdon how tribal forests are managed effectively on a much lower budget than federal forests, and Rigdon responded that a streamlined NEPA process and restrictions on litigation are key factors.

In response to a question from DeFazio, Topik and Hubbard expressed interest in a streamlined NEPA review process, which could decrease the time and expense needed for fuels reduction projects. Topik added that a change in NEPA law is not needed, but rather innovative applications of NEPA. DeFazio and Amodei additionally emphasized the need for sufficient funding for fuels management, and Amodei criticized the USFS for not requesting more fuels management funding in the agency budget.

Representatives suggested a range of solutions to address current forest management challenges. Tipton and Bishop criticized the Department of Agriculture’s plan to use $40 million for the acquisition of additional land, and Bishop suggested that Congress should enable that money to be used to manage currently-held lands instead. DeFazio suggested that Congress allow the USFS to enter into longer, 20-year stewardship contracts, which could provide a greater incentive to companies to enter into the contracts and could result in companies charging less per acre to do the work. Gosar suggested that local forest management authorities should be created, modeled after the successful Power Marketing Administrations in the energy sector, and Topik agreed that such a model could be helpful. Gosar additionally recommended the use of small unmanned aircraft to collect data that could speed up collaborative agreements and improve trust between parties. Witnesses strongly supported the extension of stewardship contracting and good neighbor authority in any future legislation.

Opening statements and witness testimony, as well as a video archive of the entire hearing, is available from the committee web site.


House Natural Resource Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs Legislative Hearing on H.R. 553, H.R. 1308, H.R. 1399, H.R. 1425, H.R. 1491, and H.R. 2219
June 13, 2013

Witnesses (with links to opening statements):
The Honorable Suzanne Bonamici
Representative, 1st District of Oregon

Rear Admiral Gerd Glang
Director, Office of Coast Survey, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Guy Norman
Regional Director, Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife
Nick Gayeski
Aquatic Ecologist, Wild Fish Conservancy Northwest
Edward Kelly
Executive Director, Maritime Association of the Port of NY & NJ
Richard McDonald
President, Management Association for Private Photogrammetric Surveyors (MAPPS)
Dr. Lynne Talley
Professor, Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Committee Members Present (with links to opening statements):
John Fleming (R-LA), Chairman
Madeleine Bordallo (D-GU), Acting Ranking Member
Alan Lowenthal, (D-CA)
Joe Garcia (D-FL)
Don Young (R-AK)
Doc Hastings (R-WA)

On June 13, 2013 the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs held a legislative hearing on a number of oceans bills, including H.R. 553, H.R. 1308, H.R. 1399, H.R. 1425, H.R. 1491, and H.R. 2219.

Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), Ranking Member of the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Environment, testified before the subcommittee on H.R 1425 and 1491, which she authored.

Witness testimony from the second panel focused on supporting H.R 1308, the Endangered Salmon and Fisheries Predation Prevention Act, which would amend the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 to reduce predation on endangered Columbia River salmon, and H.R. 1399 and 2219.

Chairman John Fleming (R-LA) introduced each bill in his opening remarks, briefly summarizing their various contents. Acting Ranking Member Madeleine Bordallo (D-GU), in her opening statement, spoke out in support of each bill, save H.R. 553, which would designate the exclusive economic zone of the United States as the “Ronald Wilson Reagan Exclusive Economic Zone of the United States”.

H.R. 1425, the Marine Debris Emergency Act of 2013, and H.R. 1491 both focus on funds for marine debris cleanup in the wake of severe marine debris events, such as tsunamis or earthquakes. H.R. 1425 would amend the current Marine Debris Act to expedite the NOAA grant process for acquiring funds to clean-up marine debris in the wake of a severe marine debris event.

H.R. 1491 focuses specifically on the clean-up of debris along U.S. coastlines that resulted from the magnitude-9.0 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami which struck the coast of Japan in March 2011. The Japanese government provided $5 million to NOAA through its Marine Debris Program to aid in cleanup efforts of marine debris that has washed ashore. So far, NOAA has given $50,000 each to Alaska, California, Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington, for cleanup efforts that occurred after December 2012, but has been unable to reimburse states for cleanup efforts between March 2011 and December 2012 due to its statutory grant authority. H.R. 1491 would allow, but not require, NOAA to use the funds to fully reimburse the states. 

During her testimony, Congresswoman Bonamici highlighted the cost of marine debris cleanup on “already struggling” state and local governments. In particular, Bonamici cited when a 66-foot dock – debris from the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami – washed ashore in Oregon, costing the state $80,000 in cleanup costs. Bonamici explained that H.R. 1491 would provide an expedited process for states to apply for NOAA grants to assist in the cost of marine debris cleanup, which would ease the strain on already tight state and local budgets and “focus limited federal resources for marine debris cleanup in areas where they are desperately needed.” In addition, she stated that the amount of 2011 tsunami debris currently still in the ocean would cost an estimated $1.5 million in cleanup, and that H.R. 1491 would enable the states to more efficiently deal with debris if and when it washes ashore.

H.R. 1399, the Hydrographic Services Improvement Amendments Act of 2013, and H.R. 2219 both focus on data gathering in oceanic and coastal waters. H.R. 1399 calls for a reauthorization of the Hydrographic Services Improvement Act of 1998 (HSIS) and H.R. 2219 calls for a reauthorization of the Integrated Coastal and Ocean Observation System Act of 2009 (ICOOS). In his testimony, Kelly stated that these bills would ensure the “safe, sustainable use of our coastal waterways” which are “increasingly vital to our way of life.”

Questions from the members mostly focused on public and private cooperation for the programs outlined in H.R. 1399 and 2219, and came from Representatives Don Young (R-AK) and Alan Lowenthal (D-CA). Rear Admiral Glang said that NOAA was doing an excellent job with current administration, stating that they had four hydrographic ships and more than 200 employees dedicated to surveying. McDonald stated that there definitely needs to be more public and private partnership, and that the private sector should not be competing with the federal government in these areas, but rather working together. Congressman Young voiced his displeasure with the seeming refusal of NOAA to make any efforts towards partnership with private firms.

Opening statements and witness testimony, as well as an archived video of the hearing, are available on the Committee on Natural Resources website.


House Committee on Science, Space and Technology Subcommittees on Research and Technology Hearing on "Federal Efforts to Reduce the Impacts of Windstorms"
June 5, 2013

Dr. Ernst Kiesling
Research Faculty, National Wind Institute, Texas Tech University
Ms. Debra Ballen
General Counsel and Senior Vice President, Public Policy, Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety
Dr. David Prevatt
Assistant Professor, Department of Civil and Coastal Engineering, University of Florida

Committee Members Present:
Larry Buschon (R-IN), Chairman, Subcommittee on Research
Randy Neugebauer (R-TX)
Frederica Wilson (D-FL), Ranking Member, Subcommittee on Technology
Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Ranking Member, Committee on Science, Space and Technology
Dan Lipinski (D-IL), Ranking Member, Subcommittee on Research
Elizabeth Esty (D-CT)
David Schweikert (R-AZ)

On June 5, 2013, the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittees on Research and Technology held a joint hearing on federal efforts to reduce the impacts of windstorms. The hearing reviewed the National Windstorm Impact Reduction Act Reauthorization of 2013 (H.R. 1786), highlighted the role of science and engineering research in mitigating windstorm impacts, and explored ways of implementing research results to create more resilient communities.

The act, introduced by Randy Neugebauer (R-TX), would reauthorize the National Windstorm Impact Reduction Program (NWIRP), a multi-agency effort that includes the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the National Science Foundation (NSF). It would additionally provide new Congressional direction to the coordinating agencies, create a National Advisory Committee on windstorm impact reduction, and transfer leadership of NWIRP from the Office of Science and Technology Policy to NIST.

In his opening remarks, Neugebauer emphasized the need to shift the national focus from disaster response to disaster preparedness, stating “[The National Windstorm Impact Reduction Act Reauthorization of 2013] would help ensure that the federal government is adequately addressing disaster resilience and mitigation, which is critical to reducing the costs of disasters to taxpayers.” However, Frederica Wilson (D-FL) and Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) expressed concerns with Neugebauer’s bill. Wilson critiqued the bill for decreasing funding for NWIRP by 14%, and Johnson favored alternative legislation that would “take a multi-hazards approach to disaster mitigation.” For these reasons, Wilson and Johnson have introduced the Natural Hazards Risk Reduction Act of 2013 (H.R. 2132), which would provide a higher level of funding for NWIRP and would reauthorize the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP).

Witness testimony emphasized the need for science and engineering research on windstorm impacts and mitigation. Dr. David Prevatt, Assistant Professor in the University of Florida’s Department of Civil and Coastal Engineering, asserted, “The lack of coordinated and sustained support for wind engineering over four decades has severely hurt the discipline. The lack of funding has meant that research is done in piecemeal fashion on shoestring budgets.” Dr. Ernst Kiesling, a member of the research faculty at Texas Tech University’s National Wind Institute, highlighted key wind research needs, including windstorm simulation facilities, a repository for data on windstorm damage, and improved computational engineering models of wind-structure interactions.

Witnesses also emphasized the need for improved implementation of research results. Debra Ballen, Senior Vice President of Public Policy for the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS), explained, “Ultimately, if we are to reduce wind losses across the nation, it is not sufficient to limit our efforts to better forecasting – although that has certainly been and continues to be tremendously effective in reducing deaths and injuries. Rather, we must reduce the vulnerability of homes and businesses to wind-related hazards.” Kiesling concurred, highlighting the importance of education and outreach, as well as the need for social science research on how individuals and communities make the choice to implement protective measures.

Several members of Congress raised questions about ways to encourage building fortification. Larry Buschon (R-IN) and Dan Lipinski (D-IL) asked how implementation of structural engineering research could be improved. Ballen recommended better communication to encourage homeowners to value fortification, as well as additional social science research to determine how to incentivize fortification. Kiesling highlighted the need to better enforce existing building codes, and Prevatt emphasized that additional research was needed to improve the design of tornado-resistant structures.

Neugebauer and Elizabeth Esty (D-CT) asked how the insurance industry incentivizes homeowners to fortify their homes. Ballen responded that IBHS’s FORTIFIED programs set voluntary standards for home fortification and that many insurance companies provide discounts for fortified homes. Johnson asked how states and communities can be encouraged to put building codes in place, and Ballen responded that IBHS recently scored all 50 states on their building codes. She stated that, by making building codes understandable to the public, the ranking has sparked dialogue and led to improved legislation, such as a new Maryland law that prohibits local jurisdictions from weakening wind provisions in Maryland building codes.

Wilson asked the witnesses, “What opportunities are we missing due to lack of funding?” Both Prevatt and Kiesling noted that it is difficult to attract new wind engineering faculty due to funding uncertainties, and Prevatt pointed to the better-funded earthquake research community as an example of what wind research could become. Ballen further noted the importance of increasing funding over time, which would enable researchers to continue with current research and to pursue new lines of research as they arise.

Opening statements and witness testimony, as well as a video archive of the entire hearing, is available from the committee website.


House Committee on Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Energy Hearing on “Restoring U.S. Leadership in Weather Forecasting”
May 23, 2013

Mr. Barry Myers
Chief Executive Officer, Accuweather
Mr. Jon Kirchner
President, GeoOptics

Committee Members Present:
Chris Stewart (R-UT), Chair
Susanne Bonamici (D-OR), Ranking Member
Randy Weber (R-TX)
Paul Broun (R-GA)
Dana Rohrbacher (R-CA)

On May 23, 2013 the Subcommittee on Energy of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee held a hearing on Restoring U.S. Leadership in Weather Forecasting. With witness testimony from Mr. Barry Myers, Chief Executive Officer of AccuWeather, a private weather forecasting company, and Mr. Jon Kirchner, President of GeoOptics, a private environmental data company, the hearing focused on how to improve budgeting and cooperation between federal weather organizations and the private weather industry.

In his opening remarks, Chairman Chris Stewart (R-UT) spoke on the importance of real time forecasting highlighted by the recent disaster in Moore, OK where an EF5 tornado killed 24 people. Mr. Myers and Mr. Kirchner then discussed how important cooperation between government and private sector weather industry is if the goal of re-establishing world leadership in weather forecasting is to be met. Mr. Myers went on to stress the importance of free information in maintaining and growing this cooperative relationship, summarizing it by saying, “For example, decades ago, the Federal Government made both weather data and the Global Positioning System (GPS) freely available to anyone. Since then, American entrepreneurs and innovators have used these resources to create navigation systems, weather newscasts and warning systems, location based applications, precision farming tools, and much more.”  

Mr. Kirchner highlighted the fiscally beneficial aspects of increasing this cooperation between the private and public sectors, citing figures indicating that average cost-to-in-orbit delivery for a single sensor in the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) has risen from $80 million in 2005 to $500 million currently, and that allocating even the original $80 million to private sector industry could achieve far more. He went on to add that with this $80 million “a private sector company can deploy a constellation of a dozen small satellites, each carrying a state-of-the-art sensor,” and that these satellites could measure critical weather parameters “with accuracies and resolutions far surpassing those of any instrument that will fly on the JPSS.”

Questions from members of Congress focused both on the overall impact of weather forecasting and the relationship between weather forecasting and climate change. Representative Randy Weber (R-TX) and Chairman Stewart both inquired as to what the goals of storms forecasting were and what was the degree of predictability of a storm? Mr. Myers responded by saying that the goal of storm forecasting was to “provide time for getting away from tornadoes” and that some storms were more predictable than others, but that predictability is always getting better. Mr. Kirchner followed up this point by saying that we can now predict storms “precious hours” earlier than before and that we can now see storms that were invisible in the past.

Representative Paul Broun (R-GA) asked about the disparity in the funds allocated to weather forecasting versus climate change, to which Mr. Myers agreed that a reallocation is needed. Ranking Member Representative Susanne Bonamici (D-OR) brought up somewhat of a flipside to this point, asking what becomes of other programs if weather forecasting becomes the top priority at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Along these same lines, Representative Dana Rohrbacher (R-CA) questioned if climate change is having any impact on the weather or if we are just more aware of the weather, to which Mr. Myers indicated that both appear to be true, but provided no definitive answer.

Ultimately, because representatives from NOAA were not present, the subcommittee called for another hearing at a later date with further witness testimony.


House Committee on Science, Space and Technology Hearing on “Drought Forecasting, Monitoring, and Decision-making: A Review of the National Integrated Drought Information System”
July 25, 2012

Roger Pulwarty
Director, National Integrated Drought Information System, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association
J.D. Strong
Executive Director, Oklahoma Water Resources Board
James Famiglietti
Professor and Director, Earth Systems Science, University of California-Irvine
Gregory Ballard
Mayor, City of Indianapolis
Patricia Langenfelder
President, Maryland Farm Bureau

Committee Members Present:
Ralph Hall (R-TX), Chair
Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Ranking Member
Lamar Smith (R-TX)
Zoe Lofgren (D-CA)
Jerry McNerney (D-CA)
Dan Benishek (R-MI)
Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR)
Paul Tonko (D-NY)
Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA)
Lynn Woolsey (D-CA)
Larry Bucshon (R-IN)
Andy Harris (R-MD)

On July 25, 2012, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology hosted a hearing to review draft legislation to reauthorize the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) and evaluate the state of drought forecasting, monitoring, and decision-making. The NIDIS Reauthorization Act would authorize $13.5 million per fiscal year from 2013 through 2017 for the NIDIS program within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The National Integrated Drought Information Act (P.L. 109-430) established NIDIS in 2006. NIDIS was tasked to create an effective early warning system, coordinate and integrate federal research pertaining to droughts, and build upon existing forecasting and assessment programs.

Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) began the hearing with a description of the current state of drought within the United States. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor run by NIDIS, over 70 percent of the nation is classified as abnormally dry, half is experiencing moderate to extreme drought, and one third is under severe to extreme drought conditions. The drought conditions are having negative impacts on corn and soybean crops. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack designated 75 percent of country farmlands as drought-stricken areas, with 88 percent of corn and 87 percent of soy crops affected. Current drought conditions are the worst since the Dust Bowl years during the 1930s and the great droughts of the 1950s. Pointing to Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports, Chairman Hall asserted that droughts are not necessarily attributable to climate change because they have been afflicting North America for thousands of years and are part of the natural climate cycle. He reviewed the goals of NIDIS to proactively manage drought risk, create a drought portal and early warning system, establish a forum for stakeholders to discuss drought related issues, and provide decision support services for drought management purposes. Chairman Hall said funding for NIDIS will expire at the end of this year if not reauthorized.

In her testimony, Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) denoted the impacts of the current drought on the Texas economy, from negative impacts on agriculture and tourism, to shortfalls in cooling water supplies for power plants and increased wildfire frequency. Although the “onset of drought is slow” and the “destruction is sprawling,” Johnson asserted that droughts need to be recognized as extreme weather events. She highlighted the need to explore the relationship between global climate change and drought frequency and severity, claiming that to ignore the potential linkage is “irrational and irresponsible.” Ranking Member Johnson concluded that she hopes to see the bipartisan support of NIDIS spread to other climate related programs.  

Roger Pulwarty, director of the NIDIS program at NOAA, began the witness testimonies with an outline of the four main elements supporting NIDIS goals. One component is “Coping with Drought” research, which provides research grants to assess the impacts of drought on ecosystems, water resources, and agriculture and for development of mitigation strategies. Climate Test-bed research is done to improve climate forecasts and stream flow observations for watershed systems. The U.S. Drought Portal is a web-based tool that closes the information gap by providing credible and easily accessible data. The final element Pulwarty described is the Regional Drought Early Warning Information Systems (DEWS), which recognize regional drought variability and develop decision making strategies accordingly. Currently, DEWS is operating in the Upper Colorado River Basin, being developed throughout the state of California and the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint Basin, and is planned to expand to the Pacific Northwest, Great Plains, Carolinas, and Chesapeake Bay tributaries. Pulwarty emphasized that NIDIS relies on data coordination with other agencies, including the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Resources Conservation Service SNOwpack TELemetry (SNOTEL) sites, the Department of the Interior and United States Geological Survey (USGS) Water Census, streamflow and reservoir level data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and Bureau of Reclamation, and the National Weather Service’s Cooperative Observer Program (COOP). Pulwarty concluded that the key to future success is creating a “sustained national system of credible, consistent, and authoritative observations.” He informed the committee that advancement of NIDIS will depend on developing an understanding of the role of precipitation in ending drought, collaboration between researchers and the public to enhance the use and value of NIDIS, the spread of monitoring tools to more regions, and the establishment of private sector partnerships.

Mayor of Indianapolis Gregory Ballard testified in regards to the severe impacts of the current drought on his district. He told the committee that weekly drought data from the U.S. Drought Portal has been used extensively by Indianapolis’s water utility, Citizens Water, to determine if advanced water conservation efforts are necessary. NIDIS helped Mayor Ballard decide to enact mandatory water restriction bans on water intensive activities, which led to water usage decreases of up to 58 million gallons per day. He emphasized the difficult economic burden of the water use restrictions on local businesses and homeowners and said the sooner Indianapolis is aware of drought conditions, the sooner the local government can inform citizens and plan water conservation strategies. Ballard said he supported the reauthorization of NIDIS to improve drought prediction tools. 

In his testimony, J.D. Strong of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board discussed the challenge of coping with a “creeping disaster” such as drought. He emphasized the need to focus monitoring on state, regional, local, and tribal scales to understand when a drought begins and prevent society from falling into the common, water wasteful “hydro-illogical cycle.” Strong then described local and regional drought mitigation efforts. Since its establishment in 1957, the Oklahoma Water Resources Board has utilized 120 mesonet climate monitoring stations, real-time data on precipitation, temperature, and soil moisture, streamflow information from the USGS Cooperative Streamgaging Program, USACE reservoir data, and Landsat thermal imaging of evapotranspiration to reduce the multi-billion dollar impacts of drought. He noted that NIDIS Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments (RISA) teams have “established a more coordinated and effective drought monitoring network.” He applauded the U.S. Drought Portal, saying it has made access to necessary drought information much easier. Strong recommended that Congress add language to the reauthorization legislation to require a firm deadline for developing early warning systems and drought prediction strategies. He concluded that NIDIS can help “save both money and lives.”

Director of Earth Systems Science at University of California-Irvine James Famiglietti told the committee that current investment in drought forecasting tools remains “far too small.” Famiglietti said the nation’s ability to monitor and predict the state of the water cycle is “well behind” because of deficiencies in hydrological modeling assets, poorly integrated water observations, and lack of a national water monitoring network. He said the ability of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) GRACE satellite and Surface Water Ocean Topography (SWOT) mission to identify areas of water stress and map changes in surface water storage is essential to improving drought management capabilities. Congressional support of NASA satellite programs, more computer simulation models, and improved knowledge of national hydrogeology, bathymetry of rivers and lakes, and stream discharge could position the U.S. as a world leader in characterizing and predicting all aspects of the water environment. Famiglietti concluded that “water is on a trajectory to rival energy in its importance.”

In her testimony, President of the Maryland Farm Bureau Patricia Langenfelder informed the committee that the current drought will impact the lives of every agricultural producer and consumer. More than 54 percent of the country’s pasture and rangeland is classified as in poor or very poor condition, with the corn crop experiencing its worst decline since the drought of 1988. She commented that dry pasture conditions are forcing many ranchers to thin cattle supplies, the effects of which will take years to reverse. Langenfelder expressed the importance of NIDIS data, which allows the USDA to make more informed adjustments to weekly crop progress reports and monthly production reports. She said she supports the reauthorization of NIDIS because it provides the nation’s farmers, ranchers, and agricultural market with effective and timely data on drought conditions and impacts.

Chairman Ralph Hall began the question and answer period by asking the panel if NIDIS provides all needed drought information and if there are areas for improvement. Mayor Ballard responded that NIDIS is a major component of city planning used by the homeland security system and emergency operations centers in his district. Strong and Langenfelder suggested NIDIS start to improve long-term drought prediction capabilities to support mitigation efforts up to a year in advance. Chairman Hall then asked about the accuracy and level of scale of NIDIS drought forecasting. NIDIS Director Pulwarty replied that the seasonal forecasts are reliable, particularly with predictions of El Nino and La Nina conditions; however, climate changes such as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and Atlantic Decadal cycles make longer-term forecasting more difficult.

Ranking Member Johnson mentioned NOAA’s 2011 State of the Climate Report and an American Meteorological Society publication, which examines the potential linkages between climate change and extreme weather events such as drought. She expressed her disappointment in blocked investments into climate change research and said mitigation depends on understanding the contribution of climate change to drought severity and duration. Strong responded that long-term predictions of climate variability “would be great,” but NIDIS should improve short term accuracy first. Representative Johnson questioned the role of NIDIS in water planning and management. Pulwarty told her that NIDIS tries to ensure that federal and state drought plans are developed before the onset of a drought event and assimilate local drought and water data.

Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) asked if NIDIS is receiving enough investment from the reauthorization legislation and if there were practical improvements that could made within the program. Famiglietti said NIDIS will require more funding if the program is going to improve modeling systems. The panel said enhanced forecasting, greater coverage of early warning systems, interconnected state programming, and increased education and awareness would all improve NIDIS.

Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) inquired about the possibility of integrating global climate change data into the mission of NIDIS. Famiglietti said it is essential that satellite data of floods, agriculture, and changes in surface water storage is integrated with ground observations and computer simulation models. He added that water cycle models can improve understanding of snowpack, soil moisture, streamflow, and groundwater trends and better inform water planning decisions.

Representative Andy Harris (R-MD) stated some crop prices have reached record highs, such as corn at $8 per bushel. Langenfelder added that farmers have been forced to cut back on livestock due to increased prices for feed. Representative Harris suggested that NIDIS could help predict grain prices and alleviate the adverse impacts of drought on farmers and consumers.

Representative Jerry McNerney (D-CA) asked how the United States could become a world leader in water management. Famiglietti said this would require Congressional support of NASA, NOAA, and the National Science Foundation research efforts, development of a national water model for streamflow and water availability observations, organization of public-private partnerships, and establishment of a reliable budget for NASA satellite programs.

Representative Dan Benishek (R-MI) questioned the accessibility of NIDIS data by farmers and ranchers. Langenfelder responded that most farmers are up to date with the latest technology and stay informed through the online drought portal and agricultural reports. Pulwarty added that NIDIS has programs in place to help communities become familiar with drought information services and create “drought ready communities.”

Representative Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) described the reductions to USDA cooperative extension services in the FY 2013 budget proposal, which would significantly impact specialty crop communities in Oregon that rely on extension services for information. Pulwarty said NIDIS could help remediate this impact by providing essential data to agricultural communities through the Department of Interior’s regional Climate Center based out of Oregon State University.

In response to Representative Paul Tonko’s (D-NY) question on adaptation strategies, Strong described adaptation as a function of regional climate centers that hinge on the accuracy of data and potential climate scenarios. Pulwarty added that the major role of the eleven regional DEWS is to increase capabilities for drought preparation. Representative Tonko then asked about the status of the USGS streamgage networks. Famiglietti said streamgages are essential to collection of water data and that USGS programs are “invaluable and could use your help.” Strong and Pulwarty emphasized that consistent funding of USGS and NASA programs is essential because NIDIS relies on local monitoring and observational data from other agencies.

Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) said the nation should rely more on “hard data” and less on computer models. He mentioned the water resource problems occurring in California and the need to have established water alternatives such as desalination. 

Representative Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) commented that “we are fooling around with mother nature.” She concluded the questioning period by asking how forecasting and monitoring can be utilized to prevent droughts. Panelists responded that the integrated network of data compiled through NIDIS can help raise awareness in communities about water availability and the threat of drought, and encourage people to be proactive about conserving water. 

For opening statements, witness testimonies, and an archived webcast of the hearing, visit the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee web site.


Contributed by Wilson Bonner, Geoscience Policy Staff.

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Last updated on July 31, 2012.