October 27, 2014
Drought Policy, Response, and Preparedness
Congress and other federal, state, and local policymakers
are considering whether to maintain or alter current drought
policies and programs. At issue are how to prepare for and
respond to drought; how to coordinate actions and assign
responsibilities; and who bears the costs of impacts, disaster
response, and long-term adjustment to drought.
State and Local Roles in Water Supply
The federal government generally defers to state primacy in
surface and groundwater allocation; and states and local
water entities typically lead efforts to prepare for drought.
As of late 2014, 44 states had drought plans. Most plans
center on actions to take during a crisis. Only 13 plans
incorporate efforts to reduce vulnerabilities to drought. The
reactive nature and inconsistent implementation of many
state plans raise questions about their current effectiveness
in improving drought resilience. Some states and
communities also have invested in reducing water demand
and expanding drought-resilient supplies (e.g., through
wastewater reuse, desalination, groundwater recharge,
groundwater management districts). California, Idaho, and
Texas also have facilitated water banks and water transfers.
In contrast, community-level drought plans are less
widespread than state plans, and research indicates that the
majority of the fastest-growing counties do not integrate
drought into their comprehensive or land use plans.
Research shows that most U.S. cities are relatively waterresilient, but some are vulnerable because of low storage
per capita, sources shared with other cities or large users, or
location in arid regions. Among cities regularly identified
as being at risk of supply challenges are Atlanta, GA;
Cleveland, OH; El Paso, TX; Lincoln, NE; Los Angeles,
CA; Miami, FL; San Antonio, TX; and Salt Lake City, UT
(see, e.g., http://soils.ifas.ufl.edu/hydrology/cities/).
Notably, some of these cities are leaders in new water
supply development and demand management.
Federal Assistance and Operations
Most federal drought assistance is for the agricultural
economy and rural water supplies. With enactment of the
2014 farm bill (P.L. 113-79), nearly all segments of the
farm sector are covered by either federal crop insurance or a
disaster program administered by the U.S. Department of
Agriculture (USDA), as described in CRS Report RS21212.
For example, Livestock Forage Program payments to
producers are triggered by a county’s drought intensity
level as published in the U.S. Drought Monitor. This is a
weekly map of drought conditions created by multiple
entities and federally led by the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration through the National
Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS). Other
USDA programs, such as conservation programs discussed
in CRS Report R40763, may influence drought adaptation.
States and local entities typically lead drought
preparations. Most federal drought assistance is for
the agricultural economy and rural water supplies.
Federal assistance for emergency community water supplies
is authorized; however, the authorities are limited in scope
or funding, or are infrequently used, as discussed in CRS
Report R43408. Some federal agencies have programs to
promote water efficiency, which may improve drought
resilience (e.g., product labeling by the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency, Bureau of Reclamation water efficiency
grants). However, state and local entities retain most of the
authority and resources for influencing municipal and
industrial water use.
Timely drought information, like the U.S. Drought Monitor,
relies on federal investments in data from remote
observations (e.g., satellites), surface observations (e.g.,
streamgages, and soil moisture and precipitation
measurements), and complex models, and on dissemination
and research through NIDIS. As described in CRS Report
R43407, monitoring and improved technologies have
resulted in better understanding of drought frequency,
intensity, and duration due to climate and weather
Federal Facilities and Drought
The Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers store irrigation water and municipal and
industrial water on a reimbursable basis at federally owned
multipurpose dams. The Water Supply Act of 1958 (72
Stat. 320; 43 U.S.C. §390b) declared that Congress
recognizes “the primary responsibilities of the States and
local interests in developing water supplies for domestic,
municipal, industrial, and other purposes and that the
Federal Government should participate and cooperate” in
developing these supplies at federal flood control,
navigation, and irrigation projects. For the more than 1,000
federally owned dams and related infrastructure, operations
are at times entangled in arguments over managing limited
supplies during drought. These dams often serve multiple
sectors and groups that are particularly dependent on their
flow regulation services during drought. Dam operations
also must comply with federal laws (Endangered Species
Act, Clean Water Act, etc.) aimed at protecting species and
other environmental values. Operational challenges have
increased as water demands have grown, creating conflicts
among water in storage, water delivered under contract or
settlement, and flows for in-stream purposes (e.g., power
plant cooling, fishing and recreation industries, water
quality, and species needs).
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Drought Policy, Response, and Preparedness
Recent and Ongoing Drought Response
During the widespread U.S. drought of 2012, the National
Disaster Response Framework (NDRF) was used by the
Secretary of Agriculture to coordinate the federal drought
response. The NDRF is the framework followed to assist
disaster-affected communities to recover. In November
2013, the Obama Administration created the National
Drought Resilience Partnership as part of the President’s
Climate Action Plan; the partnership’s aim is to align
federal drought policies and to facilitate access to drought
assistance and information sharing. It has provided a forum
for federal coordination during the 2014 drought response.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and
the Department of Homeland Security have been involved
in recent interagency drought efforts, but have not played
leadership roles. Requests since the 1980s that the President
declare a major drought disaster or emergency under the
Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency
Assistance Act, as amended (42 U.S.C. 5121 et seq.), have
been denied, generally in deference to USDA authorities. A
major declaration that a drought has overwhelmed state or
local resources would result in federal aid beyond available
agricultural disaster assistance.
Recent Federal Legislation
The ongoing western U.S. drought, which has particularly
affected California and Nevada, contributed to legislative
proposals in the 113th Congress. In addition to NIDIS
reauthorization (P.L. 113-86) and drought-related
provisions of the 2014 farm bill, Congress enacted
legislation (P.L. 113-121) that authorized the Corps to
assess its reservoir operations during drought and expanded
EPA loan and loan guarantee opportunities and eligibility
for water supply systems, as discussed in CRS Report
R43298. Multiple bills in the 113th Congress addressed
drought operations of Reclamation facilities (e.g., H.R.
3964, H.R. 4239, S. 2198). Others addressed water
efficiency, conservation, and alternative supplies (e.g., H.R.
5363, S. 2771); several would facilitate federal or
nonfederal water storage projects (e.g., H.R. 3980, H.R.
5412). Additionally, some bills proposed changes to the
Stafford Act (e.g., S. 2016). The majority of these bills
consisted of authorizations, with many provisions’
implementation contingent upon appropriations; a few bills
proposed appropriations to address the western U.S.
drought (e.g., H.R. 4039, S. 2016).
Drought Impacts and Policy
Often a disaster’s cost is seen as a measure of its
significance and a signal of the level of policy response and
attention needed. No good methodologies exist to capture a
drought’s national impact. For example, accounting for
agricultural impacts—such as the effect of regional crop
loss on the national supply and demand for food, or costs
and benefits associated with federal programs—is not
straightforward. Identification and quantification of nonagricultural impacts requires assessments of effects on
rangelands, wildfire, navigation, tourism, recreation,
utilities, industrial operations, species, environmental
quality, and public health. In 2012, the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention released guidance for protecting
public health during drought. It reported drought impacts on
water quantity and quality, food and nutrition, living
conditions, and disease incidence. While few droughts are
likely to reach the scale or extent to have broad and severe
impacts in all of these areas, droughts—especially multiyear droughts or those affecting critical infrastructure or
critical water supplies—can have cascading impacts.
Bills from the 113th Congress reveal a wide variation
in perspectives on federal drought response and
federal efforts to foster nonfederal drought resilience.
Recent droughts may result in a discussion of principles and
approaches to guide future federal involvement and
investment in water resources management. The droughtrelated bills of the 113th Congress showed a wide variation
in the activities supported, the division of responsibilities,
and who might bear the costs and impacts of investments.
At issue is how well current federal and nonfederal efforts
prevent drought incidents from becoming emergencies.
This issue raises questions about federal programs, such as
how are federal agricultural programs influencing long-term
drought resilience and water use (through improvements
from federal agricultural research in varieties or production
techniques, or through crop or water subsidization on
marginal lands), and how prepared are federal facilities
(e.g., federal dams, lands, military bases) and federal
emergency response entities and programs. The issue also
raises questions about the adequacy of and accountability
for state and local drought planning and resilience efforts.
Related questions involve the costs and benefits of state and
local drought planning, expanded federal assistance in
augmenting water supplies (e.g., greater reuse of urban
wastewaters and stormwaters), and construction of new or
expanded federal water projects.
Like other low-risk but high-consequence events, the
specter of an extended disruptive drought raises questions
of how to efficiently, effectively, and fairly use limited
federal resources to prepare and respond to disasters. The
separation of USDA drought assistance from FEMA’s
federal disaster response during the past 35 years raised
uncertainties. What would trigger a federal response under
the Stafford Act, and which types of assistance would be
available? What, if any, contingency planning and
emergency simulation efforts have been performed to
prepare and coordinate local, state, and federal drought
disaster response efforts? What have these efforts revealed
about which investments, activities, logistical preparations,
and common operating practices may be most beneficial for
reducing societal impacts of a persistent disruptive drought?
Nicole T. Carter, firstname.lastname@example.org, 7-0854
Betsy A. Cody, email@example.com, 7-7229
www.crs.gov | 7-5700