Congressional Research Service on Drought

Though there has recently been heavy flooding in the Upper Mississippi, almost two-thirds of the country – including Texas — remains in a drought or abnormally dry.  Against this backdrop, the Congressional Research Service this week released a report on drought causes, patterns and policy responses.  Among the observations:

Climactic Conditions

  • Future Conditions Likely to be Drier:  Modeling suggests the West could be moving toward a more arid average climate, similar to what prevailed in precolonial North America.  (Decades-long mega-droughts occurred between 900 and 1300.)  “The prospect of extended droughts and more arid baseline conditions in parts of the United States could suggest new challenges to federal programs and water projects, which were conceived or constructed largely on the basis of 20th century climate conditions.”


  • But Some Areas May be Wetter:  North America as a whole could become less dry.  “Some regions of the world have experienced trends towards more intense and longer droughts, such as southern Europe and West Africa. But in other regions, such as central North America and northwestern Australia, droughts have become less frequent, less intense, or shorter.”


  • Greenhouse Gases and Other Causes: Human influences such as greenhouse gas emissions may contribute to regional aridity and drought severity.  But other factors may be to blame: “Long-term precipitation patterns in Texas are influenced by a configuration of sea surface temperatures known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO). Similar conditions also prevailed from the 1940s through the 1960s, encompassing the Texas drought of record (1950-1957).”


  • No Near-Term Relief for Texas: “This year, 2013, is likely to be another exceptional year in terms of the breadth of drought conditions throughout the country, particularly in the Great Plains and eastern portions of the Midwest. The severe to exceptional drought conditions throughout the central and western parts of the United States appear to be persisting during spring 2013.”




  • Texas Electric Generation is Vulnerable:  The report summarized a 2011 Argonne National Laboratory study finding that, in the West, two regions – Texas and the Pacific Northwest – have electric generation systems vulnerable to drought.  In the Northwest, that was because of hydropower.  In Texas, that was because of “heavy dependence on thermoelectric generation that relied on surface water for cooling and the region’s high drought climate hazard.”


  • There Will Probably Be More Resource Management Fights:  “In the future, the United States might face severe and sustained periods of drought not experienced in the 20th century. If so, disputes over federal infrastructure management like those in California, the ACF basin, and Klamath River basin may increasingly determine short-term actions by Reclamation and the Corps, and result in long-term consequences for congressional oversight and funding.”  (Though not mentioned in the report, Texas is currently in the midst of a similar dispute over whooping cranes and environmental flows in the San Antonio and Guadalupe River.)


Policy Responses

  • Disaster Declarations:  Governors, the USDA and the president can declare disasters because of water shortages.  Each declaration triggers different types of aid.  But the possibility of a presidential declaration may exist only on paper: the last one was in 1980, for New Jersey.


  • No Comprehensive Policy:  Multiple federal programs address different aspects of drought but “no single agency leads or coordinates drought programs.”  To further complicate, state and federal actors share responsibility.  And droughts are slow to develop yet difficult to forecast.   “The currently fragmented approach can be costly to national taxpayers; however, it is not certain that increased federal investment (especially vis-à-vis the potential for tailored local and state investment) in drought preparation, mitigation, and improved coordination would produce more economically efficient outcomes.”


  • Assessing Drought Impacts is Difficult: “The overall costs to the federal government and the nation as a result of extreme drought, apart from relief to the agricultural sector, are difficult to assess in part because of the broad nature of drought’s impacts. Drought can result in water restrictions affecting municipal and industrial users, decreased hydropower generation and power plant cooling efficiency, navigation limitations and disruptions, harm to drought-sensitive species (benefits to other species), and increased fire risk, among other effects.”


  • New Infrastructure, Better Conservation Could Help: “Given the daunting task of managing drought, Congress also may consider proposals to manage drought impacts, such as assisting localities, industries, and agriculture with developing or augmenting water supplies. This could take multiple forms: construction or permitting of reservoirs, the reallocation of water supplies at existing facilities, promotion of alternative water sources (e.g., reuse, desalination), or water conservation and efficiency. Congress also may move to examine how the two major federal water management agencies, the Corps and Reclamation, plan for and respond to severe drought and account for its impacts.”


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