Michael Hayes Q&A

Pointer  Online Extra

By Garry Boulard

In a time when the confluence of droughts and expansive growth is overburdening water supplies and challenging the imagination of public policymakers, Michael Hayes thinks all levels of government could get a leg up on their water problems, or at least an informed perspective, by trying to better understand how droughts work.

As the executive director of the National Drought Mitigation Center on the Lincoln campus of the University of Nebraska, Hayes oversees a staff whose mission is to minimize the negative consequences of droughts in favor of planning and risk management.

Because droughts, like hurricanes and earthquakes, are wonders of nature that cannot be prevented, the National Drought Mitigation Center studies how they work, their patterns and effects, in the belief that the more that is known about droughts, the less deadly their societal and economic impact.

Q: How did the National Drought Mitigation Center come into being?

A: The inspiration for the center came out of a conference that was held in Portland, Ore., back in 1994. They were going through a big drought and the idea was aired at that conference that there should be one place, a national center, where droughts would be studied and the idea of mitigation and preparedness in dealing with them promoted.

Droughts are generally a normal part of climate, so therefore there are going to be droughts in the future no matter where you are in the United States. There is no getting away from them. That’s why it makes more sense from a public policy standpoint to do things to be prepared for them.

We very much emphasize the monitoring component. If you are doing a good job of monitoring precipitation and water conditions, then you can be pretty sure of being on top of a developing drought event.

Q: Is it just our imagination, or are we seeing more droughts now than before?

A: Well, you have to think first about what your definition of a drought is. That is one of the big problems—there really isn’t a universal definition. And that means that you can’t take a definition that might apply in Colorado and take it to Georgia and have it work there.

The way you generally define drought is how you get your water or where your water comes from, and then how you use your water. And that definition is going to vary depending on where you are. You can have a drought in a rain forest or in the desert, even though the climates in those two places are completely different. A generalized definition is not having the water to use that you would normally expect to have.

Q: How would you say the states are doing when it comes to understanding water and drought issues?

A: When it comes to developing drought plans, states have been the leaders in this area for the last 20 to 30 years. Coming out of the late 1970s, the states looked to the federal government for some direction, but did not find it, so they started to take on that process themselves.

In 1982 we had three states that had a drought plan, now we have 39 states that have some kind of a plan. So there has been a lot of progress at the state level. And now the municipalities are stepping in. Tribes are in the drought planning progress. So there has been a lot of progress.

Q: What does it mean to have a state drought plan?

A: Each of the plans has three components. The first is a monitoring component. You have to monitor the indicators so that you know when a drought is occurring and how severe it might be. Second, you have to have an impact assessment, trying to understand what sort of impact is taking place during a drought and be ready to observe that; and finally, there is a mitigation and response component. In responding to a drought, you have to know what the impacts are and be able to identify them.

The newest movement is mitigation:  What actions can states take before a drought occurs that really reduces their vulnerability to future drought? That is part of the third component.

In the past, most states in their drought plans have focused on the monitoring and responses components and have skipped looking at impacts and mitigation. One of the things that we try to do is work with the states to fill in those gaps.

Q: Is a drought bad all by itself? Or are there certain things going on in any given area that might make a drought worse?

A: Droughts tend to be exacerbated when you have a lot of other problems occurring at the same time, as we see now in the southeast. You have the issues of state compacts and endangered species and recreation, as well as tourism. All of those things are putting additional stress on the water of that system in the southeast.

So if you are going to be dealing with interstate compacts, or with endangered species issues, you need to incorporate the drought aspect into those issues. We have not up until now seen that much in the United States, but I think some of these recent droughts have highlighted the fact that even though that has not happened in the past, it hopefully will in the future.

Q: What role does growth play in drought mitigation?

A: It plays a huge role, but it is a politically hot issue. It is something you have to be careful about. There are states that plan for drought, but don’t even talk about growth because it is too sensitive for them to do so.

Q: Why is the growth issue sensitive?

A: Because the tax growth and base comes from being able to attract new people and businesses into your area. So if for some reason you are having water-use moratoriums, that scares people away. It is a tricky issue. But our hand is going to be forced to deal with it in the next 20 to 30 years. Any locality that comes up with an innovative strategy to deal with that issue in particular would be creating a great model for the rest of the country.

Q: What can a state lawmaker do?

A: In order to develop a drought plan and let it take root and be utilized there needs to be a political buy-in from the top down. Any individual legislator or legislature can help that process along just through their support. But it is important to remember that it is an ongoing learning process—we learn lessons from one drought and apply those lessons to make the mitigation plan better in order to be more prepared for the next drought and learn from that one and so on.

Some people get scared off because they think their drought plan has to be perfect with their first attempt and that overwhelms them. But that is not so. If they can build the lesson-learning process into it, they would be more encouraged and willing to go forward with it, which is what we hope they do.