Before this winter, a third of the country was experiencing extreme or exceptional drought. A wet winter brought relief to several pockets of the country, with just 9% of the contiguous United States in severe to extreme drought at the end of March 2023. California has the most snowpack it has seen in 70 years and rolled back many emergency-related drought regulations, the West, Northern Rockies, and Southwest saw the wettest winters in five years, and NOAA declared the end of La Nina.
While winter precipitation improved drought conditions in many areas, underlying challenges related to groundwater depletion and effective water resources management persist. Building drought resilience, which refers to an environment’s ability to withstand and recover from drought, is as important as ever and an exceptionally wet winter should not distract from long-term drought planning.
In this article, we discuss drought planning and explore how the nexus of strategy, technology, and water administration frameworks are helping build drought resilience.
Understanding drought: Causes, types, & impacts
Drought is a natural phenomenon that occurs when extended periods of inadequate precipitation result in a water supply shortage. Drought can be caused by natural factors like weather patterns and can be exacerbated by human activities like groundwater over-extraction. There are five types of drought:
Drought impacts can be far-reaching and can include economic impacts like higher food prices, environmental impacts like increased wildfire risk, and societal impacts like climate migration (i.e., when people are displaced due to climate-exacerbated disasters).
Drought planning: 4 key considerations
The unpredictability of drought occurrence and duration make drought preparedness essential. Through drought planning, communities can develop strategies to prepare for, respond to, and recover from drought conditions. Drought planning helps create frameworks to effectively manage water resources to minimize the effects of water scarcity on society, the economy, and the environment. Best done collaboratively, drought planning may involve stakeholders such as government agencies, water managers, farmers, and community members.
In general, an effective drought plan covers four key components:
- Drought risk assessment: Assess risk and vulnerability by identifying the potential impacts of drought on various sectors such as agriculture, public water supply, energy production, and the environment.
- Key question to answer → In what areas will a drought cause the biggest impacts?
- Drought preparedness: Outline proactive steps that can be taken to lessen the overall impact of drought conditions. Preparedness may include things like developing water conservation plans, educating community members on water efficiency, and evaluating infrastructure (e.g., is infrastructure in place to effectively capture and store runoff?).
- Key question to answer → What proactive steps can we take to mitigate the severity of anticipated impacts?
- Drought response: Detail the actions that will be taken when drought conditions occur, including measures like implementing water restrictions to reduce demand and using alternative water sources to increase supply. A drought response plan should include information on how community members will be made aware of drought conditions and the actions being taken to address them.
- Key question to answer → What actions will we take to address the impacts when they occur?
- Drought recovery: Similar to how the onset of drought can be a slow-moving disaster, drought recovery can be a long-term process; impacts may be widespread, and recovery may be dependent on the speed of biological processes. Be aware of drought recovery programs and resources that can offer disaster recovery loans and support efforts such as livestock relief and forest management. The disaster recovery stage should also include processes to debrief, evaluate, and improve the effectiveness of overall drought planning.
- Key questions to answer → What resources are available to manage long-term impacts and, overall, is our drought plan serving as an effective tool?
Building drought resilience: Strategies
Given the broad range of impacts drought can have across ecosystems and communities, strategies to build drought resilience must be multi-faceted. As is true for any strategic decision, organizations should carefully consider which available drought resilience strategies are the best fit for their specific circumstances and goals. As organizations work to build drought resilience, some strategies they may consider including in their approach include:
Water management strategies:
- Diversifying water sources: Developing alternative water sources, such as stormwater, recycled water, or desalinated water, can help lessen reliance on surface and groundwater.
- Managing water demand: Policies and programs that encourage water conservation, such as implementing water pricing or incentive programs, can help reduce water demand.
- Improving water use efficiency: Putting measures in place to minimize the amount of water needed to accomplish a task can support sustainable water use. Examples include improving irrigation systems, promoting water-saving technologies, and encouraging behavioral change.
- Updating infrastructure: Upgrading water storage facilities, building new or enlarging existing reservoirs, or updating old equipment and components can prevent losses and help increase water availability during droughts.
Soil management strategies:
- Enhancing soil health: Healthy soils can better retain water, which can be beneficial during drought conditions. Practices such as reducing tillage, planting cover crops, and adding organic matter can help enhance soil health.
- Improving forest management: Proactive forest management can help reduce the risk of wildfires and ensure that forests remain healthy during drought conditions. This can involve measures such as forest thinning, prescribed burning, and forest fuels reduction.
Public outreach strategies:
- Public outreach: Raising awareness about drought resilience can help communities better understand the importance of water conservation and help individuals make informed choices.
Building drought resilience: Technologies
A range of existing and emerging technologies have the potential to support drought resilience efforts. Drought resilience technologies vary in their maturity and scalability, and not every technology will be the right fit for each circumstance. Organizations exploring drought resilience technologies may consider technologies such as:
- Precision irrigation systems: These systems use sensors (e.g., soil moisture probes) and software to determine the optimal amount of water needed for crops, which can help reduce water waste from over-watering.
- Drought-resistant crops: Biotechnology advancements have led to crops that can better withstand drought conditions, reducing the impact of water scarcity on agricultural drought.
- Desalination: Desalination technologies can convert saltwater into freshwater, providing an additional water source.
- Advanced water treatment technologies: Water treatment technologies, such as reverse osmosis and ultraviolet disinfection, can help maximize the use of available water, including by treating and reusing wastewater.
- Smart water meters: Smart water meters can help detect leaks and monitor water use, enabling communities to better manage their water resources and reduce water loss.
Building drought resilience: Water administration and regulations
Legal administration and regulations play a critical role in building drought resilience by allocating water fairly and promoting conservation. Drought affects different regions in different ways, so drought regulations and administrative decisions vary from geography to geography. Below, we spotlight two examples of how administrative and regulatory frameworks, from the federal level to the community level, are helping build drought resilience:
Basin States: Spotlight on the Colorado River System
Seven states—Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California—have been tasked by the Department of the Interior (DOI) with presenting a unified plan to reduce water usage from the Colorado River by approximately one-third. The challenges imported by a two-decade-long drought, the 101-year-old Colorado River Compact, and our collective need for water have made negotiations toward a consensus-based voluntary agreement a mainstay in news headlines over the last several years.
On May 22, 2023, the lower basin states (Arizona, California, and Nevada) agreed to jointly and voluntarily cut 3 million acre-feet of water through 2026. In response to the states’ proposal, DOI suspended the public comment period for its draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for Near-term Colorado River Operations. DOI will review the lower basin states’ proposal for potential inclusion as an action alternative in an updated draft SEIS expected later this year.
In parallel, DOI will continue developing new operating guidelines to replace the 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which expire in 2026.
California: Spotlight on SB 552
Often, rural systems are hit hardest during drought due to a lack of resources and programs. California’s SB 552 aims to support drought resilience throughout rural communities by facilitating drought preparedness for small water systems (14 or fewer connections) and domestic wells (4 or fewer connections). The regulation requires each county to create a “drought and water shortage task force” and develop county-specific drought resilience plans for small and domestic water supply wells.
SB 552 also requires the state to provide funding and technical assistance to help small water suppliers and rural communities comply with the new requirements. Under the County Drought Resilience Planning Assistance Program, a county can either apply for up to $125,000 for financial assistance or request direct technical assistance to support its planning efforts. Applications will be accepted and awarded on a continuous basis through December 29, 2023, or until funds are exhausted, whichever comes first.
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