Multi-jurisdictional hazard mitigation planning can be an effective process to build partnerships between communities that face common hazard risks, leading to shared solutions. It can also help build a foundation to shift priorities as risks and vulnerabilities change. Since 2008, the Lower Elkhorn Natural Resources District (LENRD) has coordinated hazard mitigation planning for its planning area, which covers more than 2.5 million acres; this includes 47 cities, towns, and villages across 15 counties, and vast areas of agricultural land.
The highest priority hazard identified by communities in LENRD's 2012 hazard mitigation plan was flooding, but that all changed after the plan was adopted. That same year, Nebraska experienced a severe drought - what would eventually be categorized as a D4: Exceptional Drought (the most severe rating on the U. S. Drought Monitor [USDM] intensity scale).
The largely rural area was hit hard, as many wells didn't perform, and groundwater became limited for agricultural production and community use. Due to the size of LENRD's planning area, there are a variety of stakeholders with differing needs, including farmers, ranchers, industry, rural residents on individual wells, and urban residents and business owners on municipal water systems.
The impacts of the drought were not experienced equally across the entire planning area, leading to tension between stakeholders in different parts of the watershed. Coordination and planning were needed to identify and to implement the array of solutions required to address the shared problem in a timely manner. As with any natural disaster, emotions can run high in a drought, often leading to irrational responses. Advanced planning can help public agencies and stakeholders develop a decision-making strategy for the onset of a disaster.
Fortunately, the 2012 drought began to ease after one year, although parts of the region would continue to experience some level of drought until 2014. However, the event gave LENRD the impetus it needed to launch a planning effort to address future droughts. It responded by using the networks it had used for hazard mitigation planning to address this new, high-priority natural hazard.
LENRD staff kicked off drought planning in 2016, inviting stakeholders from across the district to a Drought Tournament. Participants were divided into teams and given a multi-year drought scenario to address. Early in the scenario, drought was a relatively easy problem to manage, but as the hypothetical drought intensified, players soon realized the scope and negative impacts that drought can have across a region.
The tournament educated stakeholders about the reality of drought and was used as a brainstorming session to identify community-level solutions to a regional problem. The resulting drought plan was finalized in January 2017 and incorporated as an annex of the Hazard Mitigation Plan. It identifies a common language for talking about, and for triggering, responses to drought based on the USDM scale created by the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. It also recommends responses for different stakeholders, including suggestions for limiting water use based on observed drought conditions from the NDMC. Continual education is important to make sure all stakeholders are aware of the effects of drought.
LENRD General Manager, Mike Sousek, advised other organizations with large planning areas not to try to tackle projects alone. Getting input from a full range of stakeholders is critical, but it can be challenging over a large area. He advised planners to engage with experts, including university resources, and to use consultants who can help with the logistical aspects of outreach and planning.
The five-year cycle of the hazard mitigation planning process provides an opportunity to keep the impacts of natural hazards in front of stakeholders, even when the hazards have not occurred recently. However, LENRD doesn't rely on this effort to keep hazard awareness at the forefront. LENRD also actively uses social media to remind residents about the realities of drought and other hazards, and to remind them that they must be united in reducing and facing hazard impacts.
Planning for Action
LENRD is one of 23 watershed-level Natural Resources Districts (NRDs) within the state of Nebraska. Many NRDs have taken on the responsibility of hazard mitigation planning in their watershed. The LENRD drought plan was the first of its kind in the state, but it sparked similar projects in several other districts.
The LENRD Drought Management plan is a mitigation action that was launched th rough the hazard mitigation planning process. LENRD's planners used the public interest generated by a disaster event to mitigate the impacts of that event in the future. LENRD's success reminds us that the purpose of mitigation planning is mitigation action.