National Drought Mitigation Center


Collaborative plan heightens Iowa’s response to drought

August 2, 2023

The Badger Lake State Wildlife Management Area, located near the Iowa-Nebraska border in Whiting, Iowa, was reported to be completely dry in October 2022. Photo submitted via Condition Monitoring Observer Reports.

By Emily Case-Buskirk, Communications Specialist

While Iowa has been in a drought for three years, state agencies have a new tool to better identify the slow-moving phenomenon and respond to its effects.

Published in January, the Iowa Drought Plan (IDP) provides guidance to address drought in Iowa.

Iowa is in its third year of significant drought, said Justin Glisan, state climatologist — the longest the state has experienced since the inception of the U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) in 1999. With consistent precipitation deficits from 15 to 25 inches below average during this period, Iowa is seeing widespread drought with expansion across the state. For the latest information, visit the Iowa section of the USDM.

While lower temperatures have prevented the state from experiencing as much extreme drought as it did from 2011-12, water is becoming scarce in some parts of the state, especially in the west. City officials in Storm Lake in western Iowa released a voluntary water conservation declaration on May 31 “in response to significantly increased daily water and extended weather forecasts calling for hot, dry conditions.”

Despite widespread impacts, the extent of Iowa’s drought response guidance previously entailed five pages in the 2018 five-year Hazard Mitigation Plan and a state water plan from 1985. In the emergency plan, the topic of drought was given about as much space as landslides or earthquakes, said Jack Stinogel, mitigation planner at Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (HSEMD).

“Drought affects us pretty severely and we didn’t realize how much money was lost to drought in Iowa until this plan,” he said. “It raised our awareness, and our level of concern about it (at HSEMD).”

In addition to HSEMD the state’s drought planning team includes staff from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS), with support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Midwest Climate Hub and National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC).

The planning group included Glisan and Stinogel along with Sarah Eggert, HSEMD recovery planner, and Tim Hall, DNR drought planning and response. Representatives from NDMC including Cody Knutson, planning coordinator, and Kelly Helm Smith, communications coordinator, provided guidance and feedback. NDMC worked on the plan in conjunction with a $1.275 million cooperative agreement with the USDA's Office of the Chief Economist. 

Early in the process, NDMC provided background on other states’ drought plans that allowed Iowa partners to adapt key components to the state’s unique needs, Hall said.

“In our development of the Iowa drought plan, Iowa relies heavily on information available from other states,” he said. “… I could find the best information from other states and heavily adapt it for the (Iowa) Drought Plan.”

Another crucial element in developing the plan was feedback at multiple stages from more than 85 stakeholders, based on three in-person listening sessions and one virtual meeting, Eggert said.

“We wanted to get input from people all across the state,” she said. “Each part has different considerations. … Without these perspectives, I think the IDP would have been incomplete.”

While the project didn’t have allocated funding, coordinating it with the mandatory Hazard Mitigation Plan and drawing on state and federal partnerships provided support during the development process. The group finished the IDP after working on it for about a year.


From plan to action

Published in January 2023, the IDP provides comprehensive state-specific guidance on what to do before, during and after drought events. It identifies five drought regions, provides a data-driven system for determining one of four drought condition levels, provides a vulnerability and impact assessment, offers mitigation and response guidance and outlines implementation procedures.

The 47-page document is voluntary in nature, providing communities with relevant information and allowing local leaders to act. On a regulatory level, it coordinates with the HSEMD plan, which is required by state mandate to update every five years.

After publication, the team followed up with a tabletop exercise for agency leaders. By enacting a realistic drought scenario, participants were able to see how the plan would play out and how the different agencies would work together, Eggert said.

The test run was helpful because the plan went right into usage as part of the DNR’s monthly water summary updates, Hall said. Based on parameters in the IDP, different regions in Iowa have been placed under Drought Watch or Drought Warning over the past half year.

Data-based guidelines have been an instrumental part of the plan, Glisan said. Local emergency planners have been implementing the plan in their communities and providing feedback.

“That gives us a justification for relaying information to emergency response managers or stakeholders to say, ‘If this drought continues, you’re going to see an increased demand for water. Here’s what you can do to mitigate more severe consequences,’” he said.

To get the plan into the public, members of the planning group have given presentations across the state and provided information to the media. Stinogel and other members will also present about the IDP at the Iowa Water Conference and the American Planners Association Meeting later this year.

Warmer months and the ongoing long-term drought have compounded awareness about the plan, Hall said.

“It’s becoming more well-known. People are asking more questions,” he said. “Particularly when we placed the whole state in Drought Watch last month (in May).”

Moving forward, an equally important part of the process is revision, which was built into the IDP’s design. This is crucial for any drought plan, Knutson said.

“At the NDMC, we often call them living documents. We don’t want them to end up on a shelf somewhere,” he said. “Because drought’s about the interaction of the climate and the systems it impacts, and both are changing over time.”

This flexibility will be important as each agency is learning about implementation in real time, Hall said. One major need it has highlighted is additional funding for data collection.

At IDALS, Glisan said they have already identified a need to modify the trigger tables to respond to flash drought events, which the state experienced in June. Team members from HSEMD are trying to find best practices when it comes to drought awareness and response, including creating after-action reports.

All planning group members cited the benefits of different agencies working together to tackle an issue as pervasive as drought. Hall said the working partnerships formed will pay dividends in months and years to come.

“It’s been a great chance to develop a working relationship with other agencies, so when we get into a significant drought we don’t have to scramble around — we already have the relationships formed so we can call each other up,” he said.

The collaboration proves that planning groups don’t necessarily need allocated funding to create invaluable state resources, Glisan said. He uses the IDP almost daily.

“A lesson is that there are agencies out there — the USDM, National Integrated Drought Information System and University of Nebraska — to help states develop a plan if you don’t have a budget,” he said. “… If we have coordination with agencies and federal partners, we can put something together that has substantial use to it.”