Drought Response and Preparedness: Policy and Legislation

link to page 1

Updated June 4, 2021
Drought Response and Preparedness: Policy and Legislation
In recent years, large areas of the United States have been
information and research to support an “early warning
subject to drought. In addition to estimates of average
system” for drought. NIDIS is authorized to receive
annual losses from drought of $9 billion for agriculture, the
appropriations through FY2023.
effects have included dwindling water supplies for rural
households and water use restrictions in urban areas. As of
Most federal financial aid for drought addresses agricultural
mid-2021, the western United States is in the midst of its
production loss and rural water supplies. The U.S.
most severe drought since the early 2000s (see Figure 1),
Department of Agriculture (USDA) administers several
with some areas facing their driest years on record. Some
programs that can assist farmers and ranchers during a
experts have raised concerns about the availability of water
drought, including subsidized insurance; direct payments
supplies and the drought’s impacts on forests and other
for crop, livestock, and feed loss; loans; and cost sharing to
flora and fauna. Congress and other policymakers are
rehabilitate damaged lands or implement conservation
confronted with how to prepare for and monitor droughts,
practices related to drought preparedness. The USDA
how to mitigate drought-related consequences, and who
secretarial disaster designation for drought and some USDA
should bear responsibility for these actions. Historically,
programs are triggered by a county’s drought-intensity level
drought response and preparedness have been shaped by
as published in the U.S. Drought Monitor, a weekly map of
state and local actions, federal drought assistance, and
drought conditions created by NOAA, USDA, and the
federal dam operations, among other factors.
nonfederal National Drought Mitigation Center. Other
nonagricultural USDA programs provide grants and loans
Figure 1. Drought in 17 Western States
to rural communities for drinking water or wastewater
projects, which also may assist with drought preparedness.
Some federal authorities provide financial assistance with
other aspects of drought, but these programs are limited in
scope. For instance, the Bureau of Reclamation
(Reclamation) operates a Drought Response Program,
which provides limited funding for contingency planning,
resiliency projects, and emergency response actions in the
17 arid and semiarid western states. Some Federal
Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) programs for

hazard mitigation, such as the Hazard Mitigation Grant
Source: U.S. Drought Monitor, https://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/
Program and the Building Resilient Infrastructure and
Communities (BRIC) program also may assist in preparing
for and reducing drought risks. However, state and local
entities retain most of the authority and resources for
State and Local Drought Preparedness
influencing water use.
The federal government generally defers to state primacy in
Timely information, such as the U.S. Drought Monitor,
surface and groundwater allocation. States and local entities
relies on federal investment in remote observations (e.g.,
also typically lead efforts to prepare for drought. Most
satellites); surface observations and monitoring (e.g.,
states have drought plans in some form, and some of these
streamgages, soil moisture, precipitation measurements);
plans incorporate efforts to reduce drought vulnerabilities.
complex hydrological models; and dissemination and
Some states and communities have invested in reducing
research through NIDIS. Although understanding of
water demand and expanding drought-resilient supplies
drought frequency, intensity, and duration due to climate
(e.g., wastewater reuse/recycling, desalination, and
and weather conditions has improved, the current state of
groundwater recharge and management) or have facilitated
scientific understanding limits more accurate predictions
water banks and markets for water transfers. Community-
beyond a two-week time frame (e.g., precipitation
level drought plans are less widespread than state plans,
predictions at the sub-seasonal to seasonal timescale remain
except in states that require or support this planning.
a challenge).
Federal Drought Assistance Authorities
Drought and Federal Dam Operations
Coordination of federal drought research and monitoring
Reservoirs and dams operated by Reclamation and the U.S.
occurs largely through the National Oceanic and
Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) store water for
Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) National
irrigation and for municipal and industrial uses, among
Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) program
other purposes. The Water Supply Act of 1958 (72 Stat.
(15 U.S.C. §313d). Pursuant to congressional direction,
320; 43 U.S.C. §390b) states that Congress recognizes “the
NIDIS supports and integrates interorganizational

Drought Response and Preparedness: Policy and Legislation
primary responsibilities of the States and local interests in
Some bills introduced in the 117th Congress (e.g., H.R. 737,
developing water supplies for domestic, municipal,
H.R. 1563) would extend Reclamation’s WIIN Act
industrial, and other purposes” and that the federal
authorities for water storage projects and operations; others
government should participate and cooperate in developing
would facilitate alternative water supply projects for water
these supplies at federal flood-control, navigation, and
reuse and recycling and desalination (e.g., H.R. 1015).
irrigation projects. How some of the more than 1,000
Other legislation (e.g., S. 953) aims to address multiple
federal dams and related infrastructure are operated under
areas to improve drought resiliency, including water
drought conditions can be contentious. Dam operations also
infrastructure development and ecosystem restoration.
must comply with federal laws aimed at protecting species
and other factors unrelated to water supply and irrigation.
Drought Policy: Next Steps
Operational challenges have increased where water demand
The need for and benefits of drought preparedness may be
has grown, creating conflicts among water users. There is
growing. The 2018 Fourth National Climate Assessment
also some congressional interest in determining whether
indicated that rising air temperatures and hydrologic
operations of existing infrastructure can be changed to
changes are intensifying droughts in some regions, such as
capture more water for use during dry months or for
California, the Colorado River Basin, and the Rio Grande.
releases to facilitate downstream activities, such as aquifer
The assessment also noted that groundwater depletion in
recharge. For multipurpose reservoirs, a policy challenge is
many U.S. regions is exacerbating drought risk, including
identifying operational changes that provide drought
in the Southwest and Southern Great Plains.
resilience while considering the effect such changes may
have on flood control, hydropower, and aquatic ecosystems.
Broadly at issue are the overall federal role and the
adequacy of current federal efforts to mitigate drought.
Federal Drought Response
Some in Congress may question federal programs’
A widespread drought in 2012 in the contiguous United
effectiveness in addressing drought, as well as the drought
States resulted in new executive branch drought initiatives.
preparedness of federal facilities and emergency-response
In 2013, the Obama Administration assembled a National
entities. Other potential areas of focus include the adequacy
Drought Resilience Partnership (NDRP). The NDRP aimed
of—and accountability for—state and local drought
to coordinate federal drought policies, facilitate access to
planning and resilience efforts. Federal assistance in
drought assistance, and improve information-sharing to
augmenting water supplies and constructing new water
help with drought preparedness. In 2016, the Obama
storage projects (including groundwater recharge) also may
Administration issued a memorandum listing six goals for
be of interest. Finally, the specter of multiyear or multi-
drought resilience and formalizing the NDRP. It also issued
decadal disruptive droughts (i.e., megadroughts), or of a
a Long-Term Drought Resilience Federal Action Plan.
change in drought frequency or intensity, raises specific
considerations about how to use limited federal resources to
FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security have
prepare for and respond to drought. These considerations
been involved in interagency drought efforts but generally
may include the question of what congressional authorities
have not played leadership roles. Requests since the 1980s
and funding are necessary to support contingency planning
that the President declare a drought disaster or emergency
and emergency simulation efforts for drought preparedness
under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency
by state, local, and federal governments and whether
Assistance Act (42 U.S.C. §§5121 et seq.) have been
broader federal infrastructure initiatives should prioritize
denied, generally in deference to USDA authorities. A
drought resilience and related considerations.
major declaration that a drought has overwhelmed state or
local resources would trigger federal aid beyond
Further Reading
agricultural disaster assistance.
CRS Insight IN11684, Federal Agricultural Recovery
Resources for Drought-Related Losses
; CRS Report
Federal Legislation: Recent Actions and Proposals
R46471, Federally Supported Projects and Programs for
Recent Congresses have acted to address drought. In 2015,
Wastewater, Drinking Water, and Water Supply
Congress enacted P.L. 114-322 (Water Infrastructure
Infrastructure; CRS Report R45259, The Federal Role in
Improvements for the Nation Act, or WIIN Act), which,
Groundwater Supply; CRS Report R45546, Management of
among other things, expanded Reclamation’s support for
the Colorado River: Water Allocations, Drought, and the
water storage projects and made changes to operations of
Federal Role; CRS Report R45342, Central Valley Project:
the California Central Valley Project. Congress also enacted
Issues and Legislation. CRS Insight IN11187, Federal
USACE authorities to assess reservoir operations during
Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Hazard
drought (P.L. 113-121, §1046), investigate forecast-
Mitigation Assistance; CRS Insight IN11515, FEMA Pre-
informed reservoir operations (P.L. 115-270, §1222), and
Disaster Mitigation: The Building Resilient Infrastructure
expand water-conservation opportunities at its projects
and Communities (BRIC) Program,
(P.L. 114-322, §§1116-1117). Congress expanded
Environmental Protection Agency loan eligibility under its
Charles V. Stern, Specialist in Natural Resources Policy
Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA)
Nicole T. Carter, Specialist in Natural Resources Policy
program to include drought-related projects (P.L. 114-322,
Megan Stubbs, Specialist in Agricultural Conservation and
§5008). Under the 2018 farm bill (P.L. 115-334, Title II),
Natural Resources Policy
Congress amended several USDA programs to address
Eva Lipiec, Analyst in Natural Resources Policy
drought resiliency and water conservation.

Drought Response and Preparedness: Policy and Legislation

This document was prepared by the Congressional Research Service (CRS). CRS serves as nonpartisan shared staff to
congressional committees and Members of Congress. It operates solely at the behest of and under the direction of Congress.
Information in a CRS Report should not be relied upon for purposes other than public understanding of information that has
been provided by CRS to Members of Congress in connection with CRS’s institutional role. CRS Reports, as a work of the
United States Government, are not subject to copyright protection in the United States. Any CRS Report may be
reproduced and distributed in its entirety without permission from CRS. However, as a CRS Report may include
copyrighted images or material from a third party, you may need to obtain the permissio n of the copyright holder if you
wish to copy or otherwise use copyrighted material.

https://crsreports.congress.gov | IF10702 · VERSION 3 · UPDATED