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Getting real: Drought as the 'New Normal'

Droughts are slow, tortuous emergencies that seem to sneak up on us. It doesn't have to be that way, say a climatologist and a political scientist who point to a better way.

It's perfectly possible to plan for droughts and minimize the losses they cause. In fact Australia has set in place policies that blaze a trail for the US follow to some extent, says Linda Botterill, a political scientist at the Australian National University in Canberra.

Botterill is presenting drought policy lessons learned in Australia at the Geological Society of America conference entitled Managing Drought and Water Scarcity in Vulnerable Environments: Creating a Roadmap for Change in the United States. The meeting takes place 18-20 September at the Radisson Hotel and Conference Center in Longmont, Colorado.

"In policy terms drought is no longer considered a disaster," said Botterill, of the fundamental change in perspective when Australia adopted a national drought policy in 1989. The shift made perfect sense because of Australia's climate, in which drought is always an issue.

"We have one of the most variable climates on Earth," said Botterill. "We really don't have a 'normal' climate." Therefore it's absurd to treat every drought as an emergency, she said. "It should be managed as any other risk. Farmers need to factor in that they are not always going to get needed rainfall."

Like Australia, the most normal thing about climate in the Central and Western U.S. is that it has no norm. Unlike Australia, however, the U.S. still reacts to droughts as if they are unexpected emergencies – which they aren't, says climatologist and drought policy specialist Donald Wilhite of the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.

"Drought is always out there," said Wilhite, who was part of a team that built the U.S. Drought Monitor website (see: "It's always affecting some part of the country."

What's more, reacting to droughts is more expensive than planning for them, says Wilhite, who will speak at the meeting on what's needed for the U.S. to shift from drought crisis mode to a more proactive risk management mode. Wilhite is also serving as the technical program chair of the conference.

Climate change and increasing population are not expected to make droughts any easier in the U.S., according to Wilhite. So there is no time to lose in creating a national drought policy.

"On average, drought losses are in the neighborhood of $6 to 8 billion per year," Wilhite said. "They're right on par with hurricanes and floods." In severe drought years like 2002 and 2006, the losses run much higher.

"We're trying to bring together all the players to work on the early warning side," Wilhite said. That means states, federal agencies, tribal governments, and municipalities pouring information into one place. Data collected and monitored will include soil moisture, rainfall, snow pack, stream flows, and groundwater levels.

Two bills are pending in the House and Senate to authorize funding for the program for the next several years. Called the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS), the program is currently being implemented by NOAA.

The GSA meeting is not the first time Botterill and Wilhite have addressed this subject side-by-side. They've also co-edited a book entitled From Disaster Response to Risk Management: Australia's National Drought Policy (2005).

Ann Cairns | EurekAlert!
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