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U.S. addresses drought concerns

BY SUSAN KIM | Washington, DC | April 6, 2001

"A lot of this is going to take place in the virtual world as we gather drought-related information and post it online so that anybody can access it."

—Dr. Donald Wilhite

This summer could be a wakeup call for state leaders who think drought is someone else's problem, according to members of the National Drought Council.

Dry, hot spells in the far northwest and southwest regions of the U.S. may exacerbate the energy crisis in California and elsewhere. And the U.S. doesn't have the early warning systems it needs to effectively respond, concluded council members at a meeting at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Thursday.

Many states need to exchange ideas on drought response plans so that the country -- and the world -- can better communicate about what is too often a silent disaster, said Dr. Donald Wilhite, director of the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Wilhite and his colleagues are in the early stages of creating a Global Drought Preparedness Network that Wilhite describes as "a network of regional networks connected by the NDMC.

"A lot of this is going to take place in the virtual world as we gather drought-related information and post it online so that anybody can access it. Ultimately we want to, for example, help folks in South America find out how drought is managed and prepared for in sub- Saharan Africa."

Creating better drought plans within the U.S. would be a good first step in making the Global Drought Preparedness Network a success, he said.

But for many states, a drought plan is created only after the disaster strikes -- and strikes hard. Colorado, for example, created a drought plan after it was hit by drought in 1977 -- and again in 1980, he said. And states that do have drought plans don't commonly replicate plan structures or practices. Florida delegates drought planning to local water management districts while other states take a "top-down" approach.

State-level leaders may be motivated in a variety of ways to create a drought plan. "In some cases it's the political will of a certain person," said Wilhite. "In other cases we've seen growth of a drought plan because a certain state has just been hammered by drought over the last five years. In other states there is no real thinking about drought aside from some kind of ad hoc process. So there is still a lot of difference politically and institutionally among states when it comes to drought."

Jennifer Salisbury, secretary of the New Mexico State Department of Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources, said that most government agencies -- at all levels -- lack policy for planning and responding to drought, regardless of its duration or impacts. Salisbury recently testified before the House Resources Subcommittee on Water and Power.

"The lack of statewide preplanning for some states, plus the absence of organizational structures and processes to identify and resolve issues, facilitate networking, and promote partnerships has hindered reaction time and effectiveness," she said.

"At the federal level, we find that droughts had historically been treated as unique, separate events even though there have been frequent, significant droughts of national consequences over the years. Actions were taken mainly through special legislation and ad hoc action measures rather than through a systematic and permanent process, as occurs with other natural disasters."

As a result, she said, funding to assist states with related impacts was unavailable, or not available in a timely manner.

For states that simply believe drought is someone else's problem, this summer could come as a wake-up call. "The tendency is to say that drought is a western issue," said Wilhite. But, especially in the last 14 years, the East Coast has been hit hard by drought. "It's amazing how red the eastern half of the United States is when you look at a drought map."

Drought has taken on different characteristics in the east than in the west, he said, largely due to urbanization in southeast cities.

As population booms in both the western and southeastern U.S., drought -- even if it doesn't grow more severe -- is likely to cause more water shortages. Water management has become a pressing issue for many state governments.

The U.S. Geological Survey's (USGS) stream gauging program could be a tool for state and national leaders trying to plan for drought. USGS has been gauging streams for more than 100 years, said Harry Lins, spokesperson. "And in many respects we still do it the way we did 100 years ago. There is some need for modernization."

Along some 7,000 streams in the nation, the USGS instruments continuously record stream levels. About once a month, USGS hydrographers calculate a discharge measurement, then plot those measurements through time. The string of numbers provides a basic understanding of stream flow across the nation.

Why should we care about stream flow? Monitoring it can help communities assess water as a resource, monitor its flow, and more efficiently operate reservoirs.

Stream flow also influences flood hazard planning and forecasts. "The goal is to provide information for those populations at risk for flooding," said Lins.

Construction managers also depend on stream flow information to design culverts, and fishers and whitewater rafters make use of stream flow information on a daily basis, Lins added.

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