Western States Need Better Drought Plans, Survey Finds

Drought map of the western US states
Drought continues over much of the Northwest and is still D4 (exceptional) in California. The U.S. Drought Monitor is produced in partnership among the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, state climatologists (including weekly contributions from the Oregon Climate Service) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Map courtesy of NDMC-UNL.

By CIRCulator Editorial Staff

Reprinted from: The Climate CIRCulator

DROUGHTS ARE COSTLY. So it’s not surprising that resource managers have put a premium on planning for droughts, such as the one currently gripping the West. But existing drought plans are getting poor marks from the managers charged with implementing them. “Useless” and “essentially ignored” are among the comments that surfaced during a recent survey across 19 states, including Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

While all but one of the Western states has a plan in place, only two of those plans earned an “adequate” rating from managers, reports researcher Anne Steinemann in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

Drought planning, Steinemann found, requires two essential pieces — what she calls “indicators” and “triggers.” Indicators are factors that signal a drought’s presence. Triggers are factors that set into motion specific policy and management actions. Water restrictions are one obvious example.

However, many indicators are confusing and contain conflicting information, the managers reported. For instance, plans often use more than one precipitation index to indicate the start of a drought. This leaves managers perplexed as to which index to follow or how to compare the conflicting indicators, Steinemann writes.

As for triggers, Steinemann found eight states with specific triggers in place, but only one had actually used its triggers. Managers were also divided over whether the triggers should be “soft” (action recommended but not required) or “hard” (required).

Arguing for closer cooperation between state and local governments, as well as for better early-warning systems, monitoring protocols and forecasting information, Steinemann notes that “better doesn’t necessarily mean more.” Instead, she recommends that:

  • Managers receive guidance in crafting indicators appropriate for their individual states
  • Early-warning systems be more closely linked to conditions on the ground, with an eye for impacts
  • Indicators be clearly associated with actions that can help reduce droughts’ impacts

“Plans without planning can become just paper,” Steinemann notes.


Steinemann, A. (2014). Drought Information for Improving Preparedness in the Western States. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 95, 843–847. Online Access

For more on the costs of drought see this UC Davis study

This story originally appeared in the August 2014 issue of The Climate CIRCulator.

The CIRCulator is brought to you by The Pacific Northwest Climate Impacts Research Consortium (CIRC) and The Oregon Climate Change Research Institute (OCCRI).


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