Leadership Corner

Planning for the next drought

September 4th, 2019 at 3:28PM
Portrait photo: Cynthia West
Cynthia West, Director, Office of Sustainability and Climate

Deep snowpack and abundant rainfall across the continental West have given relief to states where drought has become ubiquitous in recent years but haven’t fixed the long-term trend of water scarcity. Addressing drought even during wet years was a key takeaway from the second National Drought Forum hosted last month by USDA’s Bill Northey and EPA’s David Ross.

Landscapes are becoming more water limited by long-term droughts and frequent “flash droughts,” which stress vegetation and reduce resilience. Increased temperatures and dry conditions can lead to more intense fires, affecting everything from water quality to recreation experience. Consensus from the forum’s panelists on how to address this is consistent with what the USDA Forest Service is already doing—increasing partnerships to thin dense forests, restoring watersheds and sustaining communities downstream.

During the two-day forum, I was struck by the recognition from drought leaders that forests and grasslands are an important component for building drought resilience. Federal drought planning and response has been a primary focus of USDA in the past. Engaging employees throughout the agency to tell the story about the value of forested watersheds and risks from drought-induced disturbance seems to have made a difference. By sharing what we do in these areas, we are seeing increased understanding among our partners. A variety of panelists in a series of sessions emphasized the importance of restoring forested watersheds to increase water storage and reduce fire risk. Speakers made the business case for restoring water storage capacity through investments in our natural infrastructure and reducing fire risks to water—or restoration of upstream forests—has high return on investment.

Several speakers discussed ways these issues can and should be addressed, including partnering with the Forest Service. Laura Ziemer from Trout Unlimited pointed out that built storage will not meet water needs from a shrinking western snowpack. She gave numerous examples of success stories where the Forest Service was a partner in increasing natural water storage—Ninemile Creek restoration in Montana, Big Flat Meadow restoration on the Plumas National Forest and Camp Creek restoration in Oregon. Jan Stoddard from the Montana Office of Tourism and Business Development shared the economic impacts of the drought-fueled fire season of 2017 on Montana tourism. Low air quality from smoke resulted in 800,000 fewer visitors and a loss of $240 million in visitor spending. In discussing the most recent California drought, Joaquin Esquivel from California Water Resources Control Board Chair emphasized the importance of forested watershed restoration in the State Water Resilience Portfolio Initiative and opportunities created from innovative financing, such as the Forest Resilience Bond. 

All of the speakers demonstrated the importance of taking care of our shared natural resources by using, protecting, and restoring them today to ensure they’ll still be here to provide for tomorrow. That’s what conservation is all about and it is also at the core of Who We Are. Conservation depends on all of us seeing and doing our part. It’s about diverse groups of people coming together, learning from each other, and finding common ground. Together, we can take care of nature as nature takes care of us.

When we frame our work through the lens of the Story of Conservation, it makes a difference and it resonates with the people and partners we work with every day. I was able to see that reflected from the speakers at the National Drought Forum. I challenge us all to continue the great work we do as conservation leaders. What is the story and how can we bring others to the table to work together to tackle the conservation challenges of our time?

Participants of national drought forum
Participants listening to a panel discussion at the second Drought National Forum. Photo courtesy of Jenifer Morris.