Climate

White House Responds To Western Governors’ Call For Action On Drought

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2014 photo of South Lake Dam with a nearly empty South Lake in the Sierra Nevada in California.

As the first-ever White House Water Summit got under way on World Water Day, the Obama administration announced a new cross-agency initiative to help vulnerable Western states build resiliency to drought.

Responding to requests for help made last year by the Western Governors’ Association, the White House’s new initiative aims to better coordinate the efforts of federal agencies to protect vulnerable communities from the impacts of drought.

Much of the western United States is in its 16th consecutive year of drought and, because reservoir levels have shrunk to 50 percent of capacity, water users in the Colorado River Basin may experience cuts in water deliveries in the coming months.

President Obama’s memo to executive branch departments and agencies lays out the administration’s plan to bolster state and local efforts to prepare for and adapt to drought.

The goals align with key themes that Governor Brian Sandoval (R-NV) highlighted as important to stakeholders at last year’s drought forum. These goals include: improving the collection and sharing of scientific data, better communicating drought risk, advancing market-based approaches for infrastructure and efficiency, and supporting innovative water use, efficiency, and technology.

“With climate change, longer and harder droughts will be the new normal,” said David J. Hayes, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and former Deputy Secretary of the Interior. “The President’s call for a whole-of-government approach to help stressed communities deal with hard droughts is welcome news. Hopefully, it is the harbinger of a more coordinated and focused response to the impacts that climate change already is having on our nation’s resources.”

President Obama’s 2013 Climate Action Plan outlined the National Drought Resilience Partnership (NDRP) that Monday’s presidential memorandum institutionalized. This action directly addresses the Western Governors’ Association’s request for streamlined communication among states and federal agencies as well as stronger coordination.

Key agencies participating in NDRP are the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Interior, Energy, and Defense, as well as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

“Today’s announcement once again shows this administration’s commitment to building drought resilience in the West,” said Taylor Hawes, director of the Colorado River Program at The Nature Conservancy. “Better coordination across federal agencies is critical to addressing the water supply-demand imbalance in the Colorado River basin in a way that benefits all water users and keeps rivers healthy.”

In an immediate step to share drought-related data and projections, the Department of Interior released an assessment Tuesday examining the impacts of climate change on water resources in the Pacific Northwest. The study found that warming temperatures in the Columbia River Basin across Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington will lead to increased precipitation in the winters and a decline in the summers. Water managers will be able to use this information to plan for water supplies in this region going forward.

Mary Ellen Kustin is the director of policy for the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress. You can follow her on Twitter at @mekustin.