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What do drought declarations mean?

We’ve been getting some questions about the differences between the USDA drought declaration, the State of Georgia drought response, and the Drought Monitor drought status.  I thought I would take a minute to discuss the differences between them.  If you are not in Georgia, check with your own state for their rules regarding categorizing drought action at the state level.

Drought in general is a shortage of available water for the needs of an ecosystem, business, or community. Agricultural drought tends to be a short-term summertime drought caused by a combination of high temperatures and lack of rainfall, either in quantity or timing, so that stress is put on crops which have immediate water needs. Hydrological drought is a longer-term drought that means water supplies are affected by a deficit in rainfall over months or sometimes even years.  You can see hydrologic drought in low streamflows, low reservoir and lake levels, and low groundwater levels.  You can have one type of drought and not the other because they are shortages on different time scales that have impacts on different groups, or both can occur at the same time and place.

The Drought Monitor is published weekly on Thursday mornings at http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/.  It is produced through a partnership between the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  Each week the author (there are several who take turns) looks at climate information and solicits input from state climatologists, the US Army Corps of Engineers, the US Geological Survey, and many others across the country to provide an accurate depiction of drought conditions and impacts across the country.  The map shows a blend of short- and long-term drought conditions for each state.  While you can zoom to the state level on a map showing counties, they may or may not capture small-scale drought variations within counties.  This could be due because not all indicators show the same level of drought, because there are no current impacts even though rainfall is low, or because no one there has communicated their drought conditions to someone who is contributing to the weekly Drought Monitor map. (You can report drought impacts yourself at http://droughtreporter.unl.edu/map/.)

The Drought Monitor is used by many different groups to recommend drought-related actions.  The US Department of Agriculture actively watches the DM and uses it to identify areas for disaster declaration.  Information about their work is available at http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?navid=drought.  Once USDA has identified that drought has reached a certain level, they make a drought declaration for the affected counties (“primary”) and counties surrounding them (“contiguous”).  This declaration makes farmers in those areas eligible for some short-term emergency aid like low-cost loans.  This declaration is independent of any state declaration and is not involved in determining water conservation status within the state.

The State of Georgia has their own system of drought responses.  These are mainly related to water availability and supply.  You can find information about their program at http://epd.georgia.gov/water-conservation. Currently 53 counties in north and central Georgia are under Level 1 drought conditions.  This means that water utilities in those areas must institute public awareness campaigns to promote water conservation, but no additional watering restrictions are in place other than the normal restrictions on time of day that are in force all the time.  As drought increases the Director of EPD, upon the advice of the State Climatologist and others, may declare a higher level of drought response, up to Level 3, which requires additional water conservation efforts.  Note that EPD does not actually declare or designate drought, but announces a drought response appropriate to current drought conditions.  Links to the official rules can be found here.

Often crop insurance will provide a payment if drought significantly hurts yields or ruins a crop.  In the insurance documentation they should provide information on how drought conditions are determined, and may vary from one company to another.

If you have questions, please feel free to contact me for more information.