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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Drought in the United States: Causes and Issues for Congress

Peter Folger
Specialist in Energy and Natural Resources Policy

Betsy A. Cody
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy

Nicole T. Carter
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy

Drought is a natural hazard with often significant societal, economic, and environmental consequences. Public policy issues related to drought range from how to identify and measure drought to how best to prepare for, mitigate, and respond to drought impacts, and who should bear associated costs. The 2012 drought is fueling congressional interest in near-term issues, such as current (and recently expired) federal programs and their funding, and long-term issues, such as improving drought forecasting and the mix of federal drought relief and mitigation actions.

As of August 2012, drought has extended across more than two-thirds of the United States and has adversely affected agricultural producers and others. More than 1,400 counties in 33 states have been designated as disaster counties by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. Several bills are pending in Congress that would provide drought assistance or otherwise address current drought conditions. Most attention has focused on the extension of expired disaster assistance programs in separate versions of a 2012 farm bill (Senate-passed S. 3240 and House Agriculture Committee- H.R. 6083), and a House-passed stand alone bill (H.R. 6233) to provide livestock and disaster tree assistance for FY2012. (For information related to drought disaster assistance for agricultural producers, see CRS Report RS21212, Agricultural Disaster Assistance, by Dennis A. Shields. For more information on the 2012 omnibus farm legislation, see CRS Report R42552, The 2012 Farm Bill: A Comparison of Senate-Passed S. 3240 and the House Agriculture Committee’s H.R. 6083 with Current Law, coordinated by Ralph M. Chite.)

Although agricultural losses typically dominate drought impacts, interest in federal drought assistance is not limited to agriculture. For example, the 2012 drought has raised congressional interest in whether and to what extent other federal agencies have and are using authorities to assist with managing drought. Similarly, the President in early August convened the White House Rural Council to assess executive branch agencies’ responses to the on-going drought. The Administration shortly thereafter announced several new administrative actions to address the drought. These actions ranged from waiving certain trucking regulations to increasing federal purchases of meat.

While numerous federal programs address different aspects of drought, no comprehensive national drought policy exists. A 2000 National Drought Policy Commission noted the patchwork nature of drought programs, and that despite a major federal role in responding to drought, no single federal agency leads or coordinates drought programs—instead, the federal role is more of “crisis management.” Congress may opt to revisit the Commission’s recommendations and reevaluate whether current federal practices could be improved or supplemented with actions to coordinate, prepare for, and respond to the unpredictable but inevitable occurrence of drought. Given the daunting task of managing drought, Congress also may consider proposals to manage drought impacts, such as authorizing new assistance to develop or augment water supplies for localities, industries, and agriculture – or providing funding for such activities where authorities already exist. Congress also may move to examine how the two major federal water management agencies, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation, plan for and respond to severe drought and account for its impacts.

This report describes the physical causes of drought, drought history in the United States, and policy challenges related to drought. It also provides examples of recurrent regional drought conditions. For information on federal agricultural disaster assistance and related legislation, see the CRS reports noted above.

Date of Report: August 15, 2012
Number of Pages: 34
Order Number: RL34580
Price: $29.95

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