Washington Evening Journal
111 North Marion Avenue
Washington, IA 52353
WASHINGTON — Federal, state and local authorities held a lengthy Zoom call Wednesday morning to discuss drought event preparation. The virtual meeting was the fourth and final for a mix of state authorities looking to develop flood mitigation plans across Iowa.
“We started earlier in July in Sioux City, we went to Cedar Rapids, we went to Creston, and we’ve been talking with people all across Iowa about drought and ideas for how to better prepare and mitigate and respond to drought,” said Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management Recovery Planner Sarah Eggert.
Those agencies — including the state departments of agriculture, natural resources, and homeland security and emergency management — expect to have a drought response plan drafted by October of this year.
Tim Hall, hydrology resources coordinator for the DNR, said the meetings would ensure local-level input on those plans.
“We, as state agency members and scientists and planners and policymakers, we oftentimes think we know more about local impacts than we perhaps sometimes do,” he said. “So we want to hear from you about what makes sense for the state of Iowa. We want to be able to prepare for an respond to drought conditions.”
Hall said that conversation was important to policymakers.
"We’re trying to get information from all geographic areas of the state, all sector areas, not just agricultural, not just water utilities,“ he said. ”That’s why we’re having these discussions. What we’re doing today is not a box-checking exercise … your input is going to make this drought plan better.“
Agencies hope to implement a comprehensive, statewide response plan. Hall said a response to drought events should not go improvised.
“We’ve had a lot of droughts that occur on a regular basis, and I think the state has responded fairly well to those events, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be better prepared,” he said. “Whether that’s preplanning, coordination between state and local agencies, better communication and pre-response … We don’t want to be in the middle of a drought and figure out which people to pull together and then what we need to do. Doing that on the fly is not particularly effective.”
The problem has been showcased in Southeast Iowa recently as a moderate drought was declared in the area last week, and has since spread west according to a U.S. Drought Monitor report released Thursday morning.
Iowa Department of Agriculture State Climatologist Justin Glisan said problems would likely get worse in the near future as temperatures rise.
“Pure physics say any increase in the atmospheric temperature necessitates an increase in the amount of water that can be held in the atmosphere,” he said. “We get more evaporation (and) it takes more water vapor loading … those are the trends that we’re going to see across the state moving forward.”
Glisan said the issue was top-of-mind for Iowans, where the mix of water-dependent crop production, rising frequency and severity of drought and lack of preparation makes the state one of the nation’s biggest water concerns.
“Three states on there have a ‘very high’ vulnerability index, Montana, Oklahoma and Iowa,” he said. “The drought plan will really help us address all of these things in terms of our sensitivity to drought but also how vulnerable we are across our stakeholder regimes.”
Washington County Supervisor Richard Young and Emergency Management Coordinator Marissa Reisen tuned into the meeting from the emergency communications building.
Reisen said emergency response involvement made sense for drought issues, but presented an unconventional change of pace for the department. Unlike fires or severe weather events, droughts don’t wreak havoc overnight.
“While this isn’t a disaster that you can see like a storm is, it still could be disastrous,” she said. “This is kind of weird for us because there’s just not much that you can do … the response to it isn’t anything emergent, it’s a slow trickle of things getting worse.”
Because of their slower nature, Reisen said establishing a tipping point where drought events trigger an emergency response would be difficult.
“When are we officially in a bad place or a place that’s going to get worse?” she said. “To have that point where we have our call to action … it’s so big-picture, but it’s something that we definitely need.”
Responses to too-low precipitation are limited. Reisen said some areas of focus in a mitigation plan would likely include ways to minimize crop loss, keep high-priority users like fire stations and hospitals supplied, and communicate conditions to the public.
“We’ve got the Alert Iowa system that we can use to push messages to people based on geography, based on things they register for,” she said. “That’s going to be my focus … to keep pushing people to sign up for Alert Iowa so they can get warnings.”