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The heat is on

Government officials should respond to droughts not only after, but before, they happen.

When President Clinton declared 88 mid-Atlantic counties in six states disaster areas on Monday, he was responding to the Drought of 1999 in the only way the federal government knows how, by opening its checkbook.

Actually, Drought of 1999 is a bit of a misnomer. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other drought experts have been tracking it for three years. In the world of natural disasters, this makes the president's pledge of financial aid akin to helping hurricane victims only after the damage is done rather than advising them in advance of the storm.

In a typical year, 10 percent to 15 percent of the country suffers severe drought and 8 percent to 10 percent experiences moderate drought conditions. Currently, severe conditions exist from Maine to the Carolinas, with the impact extending beyond farm country to municipal water supplies. It is a prosecutable offense, for example, to water your lawn in Rockland County, N.Y.

Nonetheless, droughts are relegated to second-class status among the natural disasters the government plans for. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has almost nothing to do with droughts. It is hard to imagine being so cavalier about hurricanes, earthquakes, floods or tornadoes.

We have managed to learn almost nothing from our experiences with droughts. Each one is treated as a new, surprising event. Once the rains return we resume normal consumption as if we will never again face a dry season. It would be comic were it not so painful.

Only a year and a half ago at a workshop conducted by the National Drought Mitigation Center, a nonprofit research group based in Lincoln, Neb., representatives of neighboring mid-Atlantic states discovered, after centuries of droughts, that each uses different standards and data to anticipate and respond to droughts. They pledged to cooperate in the future. But the pressure of an actual drought was not yet upon them, and the plan landed on the back burner.

Droughts are a fact of life in the United States, and it is remarkable that we aren't used to them by now. They result from natural dry cycles in the weather, unwise water use, poor management of resources or some combination of all three. But we can avoid much of the pain they cause if we are prepared. Northeast cities are notorious for waiting until the last moment to mandate water-saving measures.

In July 1998, President Clinton signed the National Drought Policy Act, creating a 16-member commission led by Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman. The official White House description said the commission will "provide advice and recommendations on the creation of an integrated, coordinated federal policy designed to prepare and respond to serious drought emergencies."

If that is all the commission does, it will be an opportunity lost. Testifying at the panel's first meeting last month, Dr. Donald Wilhite, director of the National Drought Mitigation Center, called for a sweeping reform of the nation's drought programs that would put an emphasis on planning and prevention rather than emergency relief.

Such an approach would require large-scale changes at the federal, state and local levels. "With the proper data we can learn where and under what circumstances droughts occur," Wilhite said. "Then we could determine whether the right crops are being planted, if municipalities are wasting their water through poor planning, even which states could share their water resources to lessen the impact of drought."

A shift away from billion-dollar relief programs would require tough love on the part of the government. Potential recipients of drought relief should meet strict requirements established in advance. Profligate water users, whether agricultural or municipal, should be last in line.

Glickman has compared drought to a slow-moving infection. He should move swiftly, not only to implement relief for the current victims, but also to put in place preventive measures to fend off the next outbreak.

John Cronin is chief advocate of Riverkeeper Inc., a nonprofit conservation group.

New York Times News Service