Forward Thinking at White House Drought Symposium

August 20, 2015 | Water in the West | Insights

Leslie Willoughby

What role can federal agencies play in fostering drought resilience? Water in the West outlined forward thinking strategies to prepare for, manage and respond to drought over the long haul during a recent interagency symposium held in Washington, D.C. The National Drought Resilience Partnership invited Stanford water law experts Barton “Buzz” Thompson and Leon Szeptycki to produce discussion papers framing dialogue at the event.

Their papers address two broad issues related to the role of federal agencies in preparing for, managing, and responding to droughts. The first outlines strategies and programs for developing drought resilience on a watershed scale. It describes the federal role in coordinating numerous government agencies involved in managing and providing water.  The second delves into approaches for leveraging investments and innovation by the private sector, and state and local governments.

The White House Drought Symposium, held in July, aimed to foster coordination among government programs to enable communities to cope with drought. The White House hosted the meeting in partnership with the Department of Interior and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. The gathering was co-organized by the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and the National Drought Resilience Partnership. The NRDP is a federal initiative that grew out of a national drought forum in 2012, which identified the need for better coordination among federal agencies.

Attendees included agency leaders from the Department of the Interior, the Department of Agriculture, the Council on Environmental Quality, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Water users, water managers, utility groups, agriculture groups, conservationists, lawyers and academics also attended the meeting and participated in the discussions.

 “The White House Symposium on Drought underscored that through the National Drought Resiliency Partnership, the entire Administration has made this issue a high priority and is working to strengthen the way federal agencies partner with states, water stakeholders, affected communities and each other,” said Deputy Secretary of the Interior Michael Connor, who attended the symposium, and most recently served as the Commissioner for Interior's Bureau of Reclamation.

The U.S. government is one of the largest water managers in the world. For instance, the Department of Reclamation stores and distributes water to one out of five farmers in Western states who use irrigation water.  It plays a central role in drought planning on the watersheds where it has projects.  The USDA Forest Service protects watersheds by managing 200 million acres of forests and grasslands, and the U.S. EPA works to protect 300 million acres of U.S. wetlands. In addition, dozens of federal programs affect drought resilience indirectly. For example, various conservation and grant programs fund the restoration of resources critical to drought resilience, including watershed functioning, soil health, and fish and wildlife habitat.  At a larger scale, a number of programs promote watershed-scale planning to reduce drought impacts, and fund irrigation and other water use efficiency efforts.

“These agencies need to structure their efforts not just for the current drought, but for the long-term, to prepare for the next drought,” said Leon Szeptycki, Woods Professor of the Practice (law) and the executive director of Water in the West, a joint program of the Stanford Woods Institute and the Bill Lane Center for the American West.

Although the federal government maintains a huge role in U.S. drought resiliency, “most water management happens at the state and local level,” said Water in the West faculty director Buzz Thompson, Stanford’s Robert E. Paradise Professor of Natural Resources Law. These levels of government issue permits. In addition, nongovernmental organizations promote conservation efforts, he noted.

“Now private business is playing an increasing role in drought resilience through public/private partnerships,” said Thompson, a co-director and a senior fellow with Woods.

Thompson’s discussion paper highlights federal drought resilience programs that boost their effectiveness by leveraging investments from nonfederal entities.  In Increasing Water Resiliency by Leveraging Public and Private Investment, Expertise & Innovation, Thompson writes, “The rules that Reclamation uses for its own water supplies can promote (or impede) the development and use of water markets in the West.  While the Central Valley Project Improvement Act allows for water trading, some observers believe that an improved authorization process is necessary to promote valuable transfers (Hanak et al. 2015).”

The paper poses questions such as, “What, if any, barriers do federal policies present to water marketing and environmental water transactions?” and “How could the federal government reduce the barriers presented by the laws and policies of some states?”

Szeptycki’s paper, The Federal Role in Watershed Scale Drought Resilience, describes federal programs in the Yakima Basin and on the Colorado River. He writes, “Drought  response needs to happen at the community level, to ensure resilience of local water supplies, and at the watershed level, to ensure that all demands, human and environmental, on a specific watershed are effectively integrated.  However, political and jurisdictional boundaries are not established on a watershed basis,” His paper raises questions about follow-up and funding, among others.

“One strong message from the audience was that there are a lot of great programs, and the federal government is doing a better job of coordinating them, but more coordination is necessary,” said Szeptycki.

Some practical applications from the symposium might be implemented through programs that give assistance to farmers under the Farm Bill, Szeptycki says.  Many at the symposium pointed out that a number of intangible elements, such as relationships, trust, and leadership, are essential to effective watershed management. Szeptycki said, “Those things are hard to create through legislation or government programs.”

The symposium was made possible with the support of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. 


Recommendations for Drought Resilience

Thompson outlined three themes of recommendations from the drought resilience symposium, based on integration, innovation, and seeking new funding sources.


Integration may involve, for instance, coordinating programs aimed at increasing water supply for people with programs designed to restore fish and wildlife.  Such integration may lead to solutions that “stack benefits,” or fulfill multiple objectives, such as protecting the forested area of a watershed—which would allow for groundwater recharge and water conservation for people and wildlife; as compared to building a dam—which may provide water for people, yet diminish water for wildlife.

Another aspect of integration would be for the federal government to provide “one-stop shopping” to access the diverse range of relevant federal programs. Ideally, local communities and watershed scale groups would be able to identify the ideal suite of federal programs to meet their needs through a single federal contact.  That contact would match applicants’ needs with programs, across agencies.


The second theme, innovation, stems from facing new problems. Symposium participants suggested “thinking upstream.” The overall recommendation was to look ahead and encourage long-term solutions. Rather than focusing entirely on the immediate problem, participants keep one big question in mind: how to create healthy, sustainable, water supplies for people and wildlife.

Opportunities for innovation arise out of aging infrastructure. Rather than simply replace broken plumbing, symposium participants recommended that federal water managers think in terms of providing water for the 21st century. One example would be to consider new technology that utilizes wetlands for water purification.

Develop New funding sources

“We know that we are facing increasing costs to replace and enhance our water infrastructure, to protect the environment, and to avoid flood risk,” says Thompson. “Yet a lot of the traditional sources of money are smaller.” Federal and state governments are paying less for water programs, and local governments have a hard time convincing their constituents to increase their rates of support.  Widespread education is needed, symposium participants suggested.

Ecosystem service markets might provide one new source of funding. By protecting ecosystems, there may be economic benefits, and perhaps people will be willing to pay for those benefits.

New types of fees offer potential funding. For example, fees on hydropower dams could be applied to mitigate the environmental damage they cause.

Funds tapped during disasters provide another potential new source of funding. Participants asked, What if those funds could be accessed pre-disasters, and used to prevent disasters? For example, future drought disasters might be mitigated through groundwater recharge projects, especially during years of heavy precipitation. Such projects may be cost-effective if they decrease or prevent the need of disaster funding in the long run.

The investment community is interested in water markets, yet perceives a couple of hurdles. One is that water projects are, for the most part, small. The other is they are perceived to carry high risk of failure. To overcome these objections, federal water projects could scale up to the watershed level. Risk could be mitigated through federal loan guarantees.