Residents of Illinois probably remember the summer of 2012 as a rainless one. That drought cost the state about 11 inches in precipitation, making it the worst in state history. It also raised serious questions about drought forecasting, water usage, the economic and environmental impacts of droughts, and what individuals can do to prepare for future dry spells. Those are just some of the questions scientists, agency representatives, local officials, and members of the agricultural industry started to tackle during the Illinois Drought Workshop, held this week at the Biennial Governor’s Conference on the Management of the Illinois River System.  

The workshop was hosted by IISG’s Brian Miller and Lisa Merrifield as part of their work with the Illinois Water Resource Center and in partnership with the University of Illinois Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Martin Jaffe, IISG environmental planning specialist, also spoke. The 4-hour workshop set out to identify where new research is needed to better understand drought impacts and what tools could help groups like state and local agencies and the agricultural industry manage droughts down the road.

At the heart of much of the day’s conversation was what we know about water supply and demand—or more accurately, what we don’t know. A handful of Illinois regions have launched water supply planning initiatives over the last few years that look at how much water is available, how it is being used, and what steps are needed to ensure the region has a sustainable supply of water. But in most of the state, little is known about available water resources and consumer demand. That information could help communities make more informed decisions about everything from where they get their water to how much it should cost to what types of uses should be restricted first when the rain stops falling. Supply planning in northeastern Illinois has already helped some communities pass lawn watering ordinances

Information needs are a little different in the agricultural industry. For farmers, fertilizer applicators, and others, one of the keys to drought preparedness is access to timely soil moisture forecasts, not just rainfall predictions. Differences in soil composition, stormwater runoff, and evaporation mean that there can be a big gap between how much rain a region gets and how much water crops get. Knowing more about soil moisture can help farmers pull only as much water as is necessary, as well as decide when to apply fertilizer, till, and plant. And understanding long-term trends could even lead to larger changes for the industry, such as building more irrigation infrastructure or switching to more drought-resistant crops. 

Participants also agreed that there needs to be more and better communication between scientists, state and local governments, water planners, industries, and the public. For example, communities relying on the same water sources need to talk about their water needs and how they negotiate conflicting demands when supplies are low. And forecasters and agencies need to hear from farmers about impacts to crops during droughts so they can determine just how severe the drought is while there is still time to respond.

More information on the research gaps identified during the workshop and the participant’s recommendations for improving drought forecasting and mitigation in Illinois will be posted soon on the Illinois Water Resource Center website. In the meantime, you can learn more about water supply planning and what you can do to help ensure Illinois is never left high and dry.