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September 2, 2021

A recent study synthesizes drought case studies across the western U.S. to create a framework describing how diverse actors, from private landowners to federal resource managers, make complex decisions about preparing for and responding to drought.

River basins across the American West have been heavily modified to serve human needs, restructuring and rerouting water flows to shuttle irrigation and municipal water sometimes hundreds of miles away. As a result, droughts in these areas have diverse socio-ecological effects, impacting everything from urban lawn care to native fish habitats. Water managers serve an important role in preparing for and responding to droughts in these systems, but so do private landowners, business owners, scientists, non-governmental organizations, and natural resource managers and policymakers at the Tribal, local, state, and federal level.

In the past, drought response has been characterized as a primarily water management issue, without considering the other ecological, political, and economic entities at play. A new study seeks to capture the full spectrum of drought management decisions using a typology to categorize different aspects of drought preparedness and response outside of just water management. The paper uses ten place-based research studies across the Western United States, including one study funded by the South Central CASC, to build this framework. The authors selected case studies representing a broad geographic area across the western U.S. and containing diverse elements of the drought decision space. This work is based on discussions at drought workshops held at the USGS Fort Collins Science Center in 2016 and 2018 supported by the North Central and National CASCs.

The descriptive typology outlines four elements important for drought decision makers:

  1. How is the drought management problem framed? Identifying the type of drought under consideration (meteorological, ecological, agricultural, etc.), relevant stakeholders, temporal and spatial scale, and relevant drivers and impacts all contribute to a deeper understanding of how the challenge of drought is understood by those responsible for addressing it.
  2. Who is responsible for making decisions in this context? This includes what capacity and resources they have and what level of accountability they experience.
  3. What are the decisions or actions taken in response to the drought and how and why were those decisions made? Choosing how to respond to resource management challenges requires balancing political, legal, economic, and cultural considerations with scientific guidance and current best-practices, thus it is informative to understand which responses were considered and why the final decision was made.
  4. How are different actors and decision making processes interacting to contribute to the overall drought response? There are often multiple agencies responding to different aspects of a drought at the same time, so understanding the relationship between actors, the level of coordination, the degree to which values and goals align, and how actions affect each other is necessary to get a holistic picture of the overall drought decision space.

This framework may be a useful for tool for decision makers navigating the complex task of responding to droughts.

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