By JOHN FLESHER, AP Environmental Writer
Federal agencies will provide better and more accessible information about matters such as long-term weather prospects and soil moisture levels under a program designed to help communities prepare for future droughts and respond more effectively when they happen, Obama administration officials said Thursday.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will lead the initiative, which grew out of a series of regional forums held in response to the 2012 drought, the most severe and widespread in more than 70 years. It covered more than two-thirds of the continental U.S. and caused more than $30 billion in losses from crop failures, wildfires and other ripple effects.
"We were very aggressive in responding to the drought but all of it was after the fact," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in an interview with The Associated Press. "We made money available for technical assistance after the fact. We provided disaster loan assistance and extended grazing aid after the fact. We purchased surplus product after the fact."
With droughts likely to become more frequent and widespread as the climate warms, "we have to adjust to this new normal and we have to understand what it means to be proactive instead of just reacting," he said.
Vilsack was announcing Friday the creation of the National Drought Resilience Partnership, which also will involve the Department of Interior, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Administration. The goal is to help communities and individual farmers, ranchers and others whose livelihoods are particularly vulnerable during low-water periods to be ready and cope.
"We want to harness the federal government's best tools and science and get that information out there ... so we can say to people earlier, 'Hey, drought is on the way. Let's discuss options where we can help,'" said Jason Weller, chief of the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service.
In 2014, the partnership will focus on developing a one-stop website where people will be able to find information scattered across the vastness of the bureaucracy — often "bits and pieces in some nook and cranny" of a database that many people don't know exists, said Kathryn Sullivan, NOAA's acting administrator.
The government has a website, www.drought.gov, which provides links to some material on drought conditions, weather outlooks and available resources. The new site will be more extensive — with information on a wide variety of topics, from best-management practices for farmers to the latest scientific findings on a plant's water cycle, and user-friendly ways of determining what data is needed and how to find it, officials said.
Also next year, each agency in the partnership will designate one official as the go-to person whom state and local officials can contact for information and assistance during droughts.
The partnership also will select one place in the West that has been hit hard by drought for a test case in developing a locally tailored "drought resistance plan" that could serve as a model for other communities, Vilsack said.
Another 2014 project will be upgrading the network that monitors soil moisture content, a crucial drought forecasting tool. The Natural Resources Conservation Service will improve its information collection techniques to better help farmers decide which crops to plant or determine how to graze livestock based on local conditions, Vilsack said.
"If you're a manager of an irrigation district or a municipal water system, you're going to get more timely and accurate forecasts as to what future water availability will be so you can manage your overall water supply," Weller said.
Soil moisture is difficult to measure over wide areas, requiring numerous sensors and measurements, Sullivan said. Experiments are underway with satellite technology that could improve the system.