NDMC celebrates 20 yearsWritten by Natasha Wheeler
Lincoln, Neb. – The National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC) is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, hosting a reception on Dec. 8 in Lincoln, Neb.
“There has been such a strong focus here, working with groups throughout the U.S. and internationally on drought management issues – everything from monitoring through preparedness and policy issues. It was time to celebrate the successes of this group and the ongoing program,” remarks Don Wilhite, former director and founder of NDMC.
NDMC was established in 1995 after Wilhite recommended a national drought mitigation program to USDA.
“There really was no group inside or outside the federal government that focused exclusively on drought. We were, as a nation, doing such a poor job of responding to drought. It was very reactive, responding to crisis instead of being more proactive and working on preparedness planning,” he explains.
The program was initially funded by Congress and has received a diverse funding base over the years, supporting projects focused on improving drought monitoring and creating early warning systems throughout the country.
“We’ve been involved in organizing a number of national conferences. We’ve worked over the years with a wide variety of states in the U.S., also getting engaged with groups like the Western Governors Association (WGA),” he comments.
Water issues remain critical in western states, and WGA has been pushing for improvements in both state and federal responses to drought, as well as planning for drought in the future.
“Drought is a very different hazard than things like floods, earthquakes and tornadoes. There are so many different variables that need to be monitored on a regular basis and integrated to really understand what the current status of water conditions is in particular regions,” Wilhite continues.
Rainfall, temperatures, snowpack, reservoir levels, stream flow, groundwater levels and soil moisture are examples of factors that can impact the drought status in a given region.
“Drought is an issue that cuts across many different government agencies at the state level and also at the federal level. To be effective in terms of preparing for drought, we have to get various agencies to collaborate with one another, to share data and to share responsibility,” he adds.
Along with states and federal government agencies, NDMC also works with non-governmental agencies and Native American tribal groups to foster the concept of preparedness and improved monitoring.
“This involves working with communities, livestock producers, farmers, municipalities and a wide range of stakeholders out there,” Wilhite says.
Collaboration is also necessary across economic sectors such as agriculture, energy, transportation, recreation and tourism.
“Drought impacts cause conflict between those sectors because we are all trying to utilize the same water source. It’s important for those sectors to think about longer-term strategies and how they are going to work together to reduce conflicts and impacts in the future,” he notes.
NDMC encourages people to assess the vulnerabilities of their businesses and operations by looking at impacts from previous droughts and developing strategies to reduce those impacts moving forward.
“The challenge has been getting people to think about drought in a different way and to think about drought as something we can prepare for,” Wilhite explains.
One of the tools developed by NDMC, in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) and USDA, is the U.S. Drought Monitor map.
“That’s become a staple of the federal government now. That product is used for essentially all policy decisions related to drought by the federal government. It is also used by many states,” Wilhite says.
The program has also encouraged the development of state drought plans throughout the country.
“When I first started working on the drought management issue back in the early 80s, prior to NMDC being formed, we only had three states in the U.S. with drought plans. Now we have 47 states with drought plans,” he adds.
Collaborative efforts have been expanded internationally as well.
“This is a challenge for all countries. Now, it’s becoming even more of an important issue because, with climate change, the expectation is that the dry climates of the world are likely to get drier, and droughts are likely to become more frequent, of longer duration and more severe,” he explains.
Moving forward, NDMC will continue to improve monitoring and management throughout the U.S. and the world.
“Many projects are underway at the NDMC. In fact, NOAA has just chosen the NDMC for a new center that is being formed, called the Drought Risk Management Center,” says Wilhite.
The program is part of NOAA’s National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS), and it will emphasize early warning systems and vulnerability assessment related to drought risk.
“There are also some projects being funded through USDA because agriculture remains a very vulnerable sector within the country and around the world,” he adds.
Wilhite explains that weather patterns have always included periods of drought, and people can be more proactive toward future events.
“It’s imperative, as we move toward the future, to really focus on drought and the implications of drought for people, the environment and sustainability in general,” remarks Wilhite.