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Monday, May 6, 2013

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. Severe drought in 2011 and 2012 fueled congressional interest in near-term issues, such as current (and recently expired) federal programs and their funding, and long-term issues, such as drought forecasting and various federal drought relief and mitigation actions. Continuing drought conditions throughout the country contribute to ongoing interest in federal drought policies and responses.

As of April 2013, drought has persisted across approximately two-thirds of the United States and is threatening agricultural production and other sectors. More than 1,180 counties so far have been designated as disaster areas for the 2013 crop season, including 286 counties contiguous to primary drought counties. In comparison, in August 2012, more than 1,400 counties in 33 states had been designated as disaster counties by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. Most attention in the 112
th Congress focused on the extension of expired disaster assistance programs in separate versions of a 2012 farm bill. Attention in the 113th Congress again is expected to focus on farm bill legislation; however, other bills addressing different aspects of drought policy and response have also been introduced. (For information regarding drought disaster assistance for agricultural producers, see CRS Report RS21212, Agricultural Disaster Assistance. For information on the 2012 bill, 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.)

Although agricultural losses typically dominate drought impacts, federal drought activities are not limited to agriculture. For example, the 2012 drought raised congressional interest in whether and to what extent other federal agencies have and are using authorities to address drought. Similarly, the President in August 2012 convened the White House Rural Council to assess executive branch agencies’ responses to the ongoing drought. The Administration shortly thereafter announced several new administrative actions to address the drought.

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. 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 address 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 drought.

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: April 22, 2013
Number of Pages: 36
Order Number: RL34580
Price: $29.95

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