Western governors advocate drought plan

Western governors advocate drought plan by Susan Smith Drought, which has plagued some western states for six years, could be better predicted and dealt with if a national information system endorsed by western governors goes into effect.

Members of the Western Governors' Association adopted the plan during their annual meeting June 21 in Santa Fe, NM.

The National Integrated Drought Information System ideally will marshal together different areas of federal, state and local government that gather statistics used to predict drought and provide relief for the damage that results.

Unlike hurricanes or tornados that slam into communities wreaking havoc and then retreating, a drought slowly creeps into an area spreading damage in its wake. And that's one of the main reasons no comprehensive federal policy to deal with drought exists.

"The nation has policies for tornados and floods," Montana Gov. Judy Martz said. "We need a national policy for drought that can work to provide needed assistance to farmers and ranchers. Much of the West is in the midst of a six-year drought. This is no longer a weather event; it is a widespread socioeconomic tragedy. NIDIS is one component of a policy that can help."

The governors' association and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration began working together in 2003 to develop an improved drought monitoring system. NIDIS is the first result of that partnership. The governors predicted the new system would result in a quicker, more proactive response to drought conditions.

"This is going to be a tool that I believe will be a recognized indicator of drought conditions," Gov. Mike Rounds said.

When developing agriculture policy to deal with drought Rounds said the ability to produce commodities is most frequently discussed. But rarely is the ability to produce grass to feed livestock considered and that's a major tool to locate drought-plagued areas, he said.

"In South Dakota, we depend on weather conditions for a large part of our economy," Rounds said. "With this system, we can more accurately predict a drought based on science rather than estimates. This is critical for our states and at the national level."

Additional information gathered using the new system could help the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers more accurately predict water levels, Rounds said. NIDIS could allow the corps to implement conservation measures earlier in the drought cycle rather than "simply raising water levels to float boats down south," Rounds said.

It could take three to four years to get widespread adoption of the new plan. The governors called for Congress to pass a national drought policy that includes funding to support the NIDIS system. Besides the lack of a comprehensive drought policy, no coordinated research program exists to study drought.

Federal funding would be used to create such a program, according to a report given to the western governors.

Information collected on a state and local level is spotty right now, but it's expected that the coordination NIDIS could provide could fill those holes. To do that, closer cooperation between federal, state and local levels of government will be required, according to the NIDIS report.

But Rounds said South Dakota for years has been advocating such a system and lobbying for it on a federal level.

"Finally we're not just a voice in the darkness," he said.

Rounds said he's willing to make the state's cooperative extension service available as a reporting mechanism. It's not certain what specific data will be required, Rounds said.

Items like moisture and snow pack levels already are recorded. But other types of data not monitored by the state might be needed.

The governor said there's no doubt, however, that the new system will help.

"These discussions in the future are going to be based on more accurate systems of data," Rounds said. "That's going to be better for everybody."

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