Drought―a deficiency of moisture that results in adverse effects―occurs to some extent almost every year in areas of the United States. Droughts can simultaneously reduce available water supplies and increase demands for water. Drought has the potential to affect economic and environmental conditions on local, regional, and national scales, as well as to cause disruptions in water supplies for households and communities.
Droughts are a component of climate variability and may be seasonal, multiyear, or multi-decadal in duration. According to an August 2021 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on the physical science of climate change, variable precipitation and rising temperatures are intensifying droughts in some U.S. regions. According to the report, certain types of droughts, such as those causing agricultural impacts, are expected to be more likely in the western and central regions of the United States in the future.
The federal government generally defers to state primacy in surface and groundwater allocation, and states and local entities typically lead efforts to prepare for drought. Multiple federal agencies contribute to these efforts to predict, plan for, and respond to drought. The federal government, and in particular the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, plays a key role in researching and monitoring drought through the National Integrated Drought Information System and the U.S. Drought Monitor. Other federal agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Geological Survey, also research and monitor drought factors and conditions. USDA provides the primary federal financial aid to lessen the impacts of drought and compensate for agricultural production loss after drought onset.
Congress has authorized federal assistance for other aspects of drought, but these programs generally are limited in scope. In localities or watersheds with major projects managed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation, which operates exclusively in the 17 arid western states) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE, which operates nationwide), the federal role in water management is more direct and can be especially controversial during times of drought, when multiple users compete for water. Congress has directed both Reclamation and USACE to plan for future droughts at federally authorized projects. Other federal programs, such as those supporting nonfederal efforts to develop water conservation, water reuse and recycling, rural water supplies, or other municipal and industrial water supplies, may prioritize projects that lessen the impacts of drought even when these programs do not focus exclusively on drought.
Severe drought in California from 2012 to 2016, as well as widespread drought in the western United States in 2021 and other recent events, has raised the profile of drought and led to increasing congressional and administrative proposals to prepare for and respond to its impacts. The 117th Congress enacted funding for drought activities in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (P.L. 117-58). Congressional interest in drought may include new and amended authorities for drought planning and response; emergency appropriations to alleviate drought impacts and enhance related activities; and oversight of ongoing federal drought science, preparedness, and management efforts.
“Drought in the United States: Science, Policy, and Selected Federal Authorities,” CRS Report R46911, February 8, 2022 (50-page PDF)
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