The National Integrated Drought Information System puts federal data in the hands of farmers, state officials, and businesses.
By Brett Walton
Circle of Blue
Citing the need for coordination and communication, President Barack Obama signed legislation Thursday to renew federal support for a collaborative drought program that seeks to reduce financial and environmental risks posed by sustained dry periods.
The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Ralph Hall, a Texas Republican, authorizes $US 67.5 million over five years for the National Integrated Drought Information System, a program created in 2007 and widely praised for delivering accurate data and analysis.
The NIDIS reauthorization comes amid the drying of the American West. California, in particular, is stuck in a deep drought, now in its third year, that sapped reservoirs, put drinking water supplies for 17 small communities at risk, and prompted the state to reassess how it manages water.
With his signature, President Obama gave water managers another tool for their response kit, in addition to the $US 1.2 billion drought relief package he pledged last month.
“This bipartisan legislation ensures that the federal government can continue to provide timely, effective drought warning forecasts and vital support to communities that are vulnerable to drought,” the president said in a statement. “States, cities, towns, farmers, and businesses rely on tools and data from the National Integrated Drought Information System to make informed decisions about water use, crop planting, wildfire response, and other critical areas.”
In its initial phase, NIDIS acted as both a clearinghouse and a switchboard. It trawled the warehouses of federal climate data and stocked the shelves of its U.S. Drought Portal website with the goods. It then hosted monthly conference calls with federal, state, and local water managers and scientists to share the latest data on river flows, precipitation, and soil moisture, all drought indicators.
These calls are organized by region or river basin – for instance, the southern Great Plains, the upper Colorado River, or the coastal Carolinas – and tailored to each region’s needs.
“In the Carolinas, it’s coastal wetlands. In the Pacific Northwest, it’s salmon and hydropower. In the Upper Midwest, it’s rangelands,” explained Roger Pulwarty, NIDIS director, in an interview last year with Circle of Blue. “We have to learn from each region to see what they need, how it should be provided, and how we can take it up most successfully.”
With that in mind, NIDIS initiated pilot studies to analyze problems particular to a region.
In California, for example, four pilot studies are underway. A study in Southern California looks at the pipes and pumps that deliver water to at least 19 million people. A study in the Central Valley, an agricultural champion, will use satellite imagery to calculate the amount of land that farmers left fallow. The information, requested by state officials, will help determine which counties receive disaster assistance.
This attention to local detail won NIDIS widespread support among western officials.
“Western governors are gratified that NIDIS has been reauthorized,” Jim Ogsbury, executive director of the Western Governors’ Association, told Circle of Blue. “It’s critical that the U.S. Drought Portal continue to provide objective and timely data on drought, as well as drought mitigation and management, for use by farmers, water managers, decision-makers, and local governments.”
Though the president signed the legislation, authorization is only the first step along the money trail. Congress must now commit the money, which it will do annually through a budget appropriation.
In the past, appropriated dollars fell short of authorized dollars. Between 2007 and 2012, Congress gave NIDIS just 75 percent of its authorized funding.
Brett writes about agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and the politics and economics of water in the United States. He also writes the Federal Water Tap, Circle of Blue’s weekly digest of U.S. government water news. He is the winner of two Society of Environmental Journalists reporting awards, one of the top honors in American environmental journalism: first place for explanatory reporting for a series on septic system pollution in the United States(2016) and third place for beat reporting in a small market (2014). He received the Sierra Club’s Distinguished Service Award in 2018. Brett lives in Seattle, where he hikes the mountains and bakes pies. Contact Brett Walton