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National Association of Counties
Washington, D.C.

www.NACo.org

 NACo, Vilsack partner on regional drought meeting

By Erik Johnston
ASSOCIATE LEGISLATIVE DIRECTOR​​

With more than two-thirds of the nation’s counties declared official drought disaster areas, NACo partnered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to hold a regional drought meeting in Douglas County (Omaha), Nebraska on Oct. 9.

NACo President Chris Rodgers, commissioner, Douglas County, Neb. moderated the opening session where he stressed the need for a comprehensive drought response and a multi-year Farm Bill.


Photo by Erik Johnston
NACo President Chris Rodgers (r) discusses the day’s events with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack.
  
“It is critical to address the immediate needs of our nation’s producers, but we also must look at the mid-range and long-term drought issues facing our state, region and nation, and begin to plan for them,” Rodgers said.  “A critical first step in this response must be the passage of a multi-year Farm Bill when Congress returns after the elections, so that producers, businesses and local governments can plan for rural development efforts tailored to meet upcoming challenges such as the possibility of a continued drought.”

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and federal officials from a half-dozen other agencies participated and discussed tools now available to producers and businesses, and listened to suggestions regarding larger community-wide needs. 

“From the early days of this disaster, USDA has taken action to help,” Vilsack said. “We’ve streamlined our disaster-designation process, provided easier access to farm credit, and opened more conservation lands for emergency haying and grazing, and much more. Meanwhile, we continue to convene regular meetings of White House Rural Council to coordinate the federal response and identify every effort we can take to provide additional help and assistance.
“In order to do the most good,” Vilsack continued, “we must ensure a strong partnership between local communities, states, tribes and the federal government.”

The meeting included two breakout tracks, with one focused on meeting the needs of farmers and ranchers, and the other on businesses and communities. Producers expressed worries over the lack of resiliency in rural water systems, the need for interconnected water systems with multiple sources and the need to help livestock producers, new producers dealing with drought for the first time and those producers without crop insurance. Another consensus issue was the need to bolster research on drought-resistant crops.
The resources available to help producers are catalogued at www.usda.gov/drought.

Several of NACo’s rural leaders served as panel participants in the community leader breakout sessions. Commissioner Don Larson from Brookings County, S.D., Supervisor Melvyn Houser from Pottawattamie County, Iowa, and Supervisor Doris Karloff from Saunders County, Neb. described the issues facing rural counties.

The top concern expressed by many community leaders was meeting the immediate needs of producers and businesses in their communities that do not have a safety net. Wildfires, for example, have ravaged many counties and overburdened the volunteer first responders of rural counties. Another major issue is balancing the need for irrigation during times of drought with diminishing municipal water supplies. Variable-speed water pumps for wells and interconnected public water systems are solutions that rural water professionals are striving to get communities to plan for moving forward.

As families face economic stress, communities are also striving to accomodate the public health issues that are beginning to be seen by the mental health system.

Vilsack stressed his support for a comprehensive recovery response that considers the ideas of local leaders. The federal government is coordinating the drought recovery response through the implementation of the National Disaster Recovery Framework (NDRF). The framework is designed to link local, state, tribal and federal governments, the private sector and nongovernmental and community organizations that play vital roles in recovery. The resources available for all stakeholders, including planning, data and loan availability to develop community economic recovery plans, can be found at www.drought.gov/drought and www.whitehouse.gov/drought.

County officials stressed the need to focus on opportunities for a more resilient future. “The drought situation is very difficult, but I encourage those of us responding to this situation to think about how we can adapt to Mother Nature’s whims,” Houser said.  “We should consider fostering new opportunities for rural entrepreneurs to develop water resource conservation and reuse solutions that help producers and communities adapt to less water.”

The day’s events were the first in a series of USDA roundtable-workshop sessions. NACo, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension and the city of Omaha sponsored the meeting.