State must update its drought mitigation and response plan, officials say

‘We’re missing out on being ahead of the curve,’ one climate watcher says of Nebraska’s now 23-year-old plan

By: - November 7, 2023 7:14 pm
South Platte River

Drought conditions in 2022 dried up the flows in the South Platte River east of Ogallala, near Roscoe. Portions of the Platte River near Columbus ran dry this summer for a time. (Courtesy of the Nebraska Governor’s Office)

LINCOLN — Even though drought conditions have eased in Nebraska in recent months, the state needs to update its 23-year-old drought response plan, members of a state climate committee said Tuesday.

Mark Svoboda, the director of the National Drought Mitigation Center, based at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said several states have updated their drought response plans in recent years, including Iowa and South Dakota.

But Nebraska, Svoboda said, still relies on a plan from 2000, one that doesn’t have the rich store of data now available and one that doesn’t provide great guidance on how to avoid or respond to a drought.

‘We’re missing out’

“I fear that we’re missing out on being ahead of the curve,” he told fellow members of the State Climate Assessment Response Committee (CARC). “You want to be proactive, and not reactive.”

The committee, composed of climatologists, geologists and others who monitor climate for UNL and a variety of agriculture and natural resources agencies, meets twice a year to look at data and advise the governor and state agencies about drought and other severe weather.

Tuesday was the CARC’s second meeting of 2023, and compared to July, it was mostly upbeat. A year ago, 100% of the state was in some stage of drought, and dry weather was persisting into July, when timely rains served to reduce the drought area to just under 25% of the state. (See drought maps below.)

“The saving grace was the month of July,” said Brad Fuchs, a climatologist with the national center.

Portions of the Panhandle and north-central Nebraska received heavy rains throughout the summer, pushing them out of the drought category, Fuchs said, though the southeast quarter of the state is still significantly short of precipitation.

Nick Streff, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s statistics service, told the CARC that due to the midsummer rains, corn yields in Nebraska are expected to be up 5.5% over last year. Yields, he said, are expected to average 174 bushels per acre this year compared to 165 bushels in 2022.

July was a ‘godsend’

July was a “godsend,” said Eric Hunt, of the State Climate Office.

Svoboda, though, said he worries that if the state gets plentiful precipitation this winter and spring, momentum for updating a state plan will dissipate, despite two years of drought.

Hilary Maricle, who chairs the CARC and is the deputy director of the Nebraska Department of

Agriculture, said she has already had preliminary discussions with the state Departments of Environment and Energy and Natural Resources. She said she has asked them what should be included in an updated drought mitigation and response plans and what plans they have developed already.

The Nebraska Emergency Management Agency also has a role to play during a drought, Maricle said.

‘Work to do’

“We’ve got some more work to do about who’s doing what,” she said, to avoid duplication.

Maricle urged members of the CARC to provide their ideas on what should be addressed in such an update.

She said the committee, when it meets again in the spring, hopes to finalize what needs to be in the drought mitigation plan.

Maricle said she had no timeline on when an updated plan could be completed.

Svoboda said Nebraska could learn some lessons from other states, citing Iowa as one example.

Iowa’s plan, updated this year, includes “triggers” related to precipitation, stream flow and drought designations that would call for a drought “warning” or “emergency.”

While Nebraska’s natural resources districts already monitor groundwater use and issue directives if water is short, Svoboda said that a state drought plan would encompass a wider scope than just irrigation.

Steps to update the state’s drought management plan comes as Nebraska is developing a Climate Pollution Reduction Plan, utilizing a $3 million grant as part of President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act.

In 2022, the Nebraska Legislature also allocated $150,000 in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to update a 2014 state plan that assesses the impact of climate change on the state.

drought map
Nebraska’s latest drought map, as of Oct. 31, shows only a portion of southeast Nebraska (in red and deep red) as experiencing extreme or exception drought. Orange and tan areas indicate less intense drought. (courtesy National Drought Mitigation Center)

drought map Aug. 2023
The state drought map in August was much more dire, with a wide swatch of the state in extreme or exceptional drought. (courtesy National Drought Mitigation Center)


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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.