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Press Release · February 1, 2016

A Road Map to Improve the Federal Government’s Drought Response

With Modest Changes, U.S. Can Help Western States Boost Resilience

SAN FRANCISCO, February 1, 2016—The federal government should leverage its “carrot-and-stick” powers to help resolve long-standing conflicts in the American West that are increasing regional and local vulnerability to drought. This is among the key recommendations to improve federal drought management made by the PPIC Water Policy Center in a report released today.

Federal intervention could reduce regional tensions, litigation, and costs. Conflicts needing federal help to achieve resolution include managing long-term water shortages in the Colorado River Basin, balancing water supply and ecosystem goals in California’s Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta, and implementing previously negotiated agreements in the Klamath Basin over water use and dams.

The PPIC report—based on public information and interviews with more than 40 individuals at the local, state, and federal levels—concludes that a series of pragmatic federal actions can help the western states weather a warmer, possibly drier future.

“Improving the federal role in western drought management is urgent,” said Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow at the PPIC Water Policy Center and a coauthor of the report. “Our recommendations focus on modest changes, rather than sweeping initiatives that would require time-consuming legislation or new funding.”

The federal government is the West’s largest landowner, irrigation water supplier, water information provider, hydropower generator, and environmental regulator. More than two dozen federal agencies and departments are directly or indirectly involved in all facets of western water management. Their roles and responsibilities are complex, and they sometimes work at cross purposes. To be more effective, the federal government should set and align policy priorities across agencies and apply them at the scale of large river basins or watersheds within these basins.

Given the importance of agriculture in western water use—on average, it accounts for 85% of total business and residential use—and the size of existing federal farm programs, the greatest potential for building drought resilience lies with improving key US Department of Agriculture programs.

Small changes in programs that pay farmers to conserve water and land resources could yield significant improvements in western water supplies and ecosystems. These programs should be made more flexible to improve management in river basins and watersheds, rather than focusing solely on farm-level efficiency. This strategy might include making “easement” payments to farmers to keep farms in field crops, which can be fallowed more easily than tree crops during droughts. Similarly, making payments to farmers who return some water to wetlands and rivers can help avert ecosystem crises during droughts.

In addition, the Forest Service should shift its focus from fire suppression to fire prevention, forest thinning, and protection of headwater sources. Historic forest management practices and prolonged drought have left federal forests—which supply most of the West’s water—dense, dry, and prone to wildfires. In recent years, more than half of the US Forest Service budget has been consumed by fighting increasingly severe wildfires.

Finally, the federal government needs to modernize the way it collects data and forecasts weather. This includes reversing the long-term decline in support for monitoring water and climate, as well as improving forecasts from the National Weather Service. These changes can reduce the economic cost, social disruption, and environmental effects of drought.

The report acknowledges that even modest institutional changes of this kind can be difficult, given the size and complexity of the federal government and the reliance of many westerners on federal programs.

“If we don’t change the way the federal government engages with the West on water, lessons of the latest drought will be lost, and we’ll have to learn them all over again with the next drought,” said Ellen Hanak, center director and a coauthor of the report.

The report, Improving the Federal Response to Drought: Five Areas for Reform, was supported with funding from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. In addition to Mount and Hanak, the coauthors are Caitrin Chappelle, associate director of the PPIC Water Policy Center; Bonnie Colby, professor in the University of Arizona’s College of Agriculture; Richard Frank, director of the UC Davis California Environmental Law and Policy Center; Greg Gartrell, former assistant general manager at the Contra Costa Water District in California; Brian Gray, adjunct fellow at the PPIC Water Policy Center and professor emeritus of UC Hastings College of the Law; Douglas Kenney, director of the University of Colorado Law School’s Western Water Policy Program at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment; Jay Lund, adjunct fellow at the PPIC Water Policy Center and director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences; Peter Moyle, associate director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences; and Leon Szeptycki, executive director of Water in the West at Stanford University.


The PPIC Water Policy Center spurs innovative water management solutions that support a healthy economy, environment, and society—now and for future generations. It connects timely, objective, nonpartisan research to real-world water management debates, with the goal of putting California water policy on a sustainable and construc­tive path. The center was launched in April 2015.


PPIC is dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett. PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office.