WASHINGTON — Hot, bone-dry and unrelenting — such were the conditions across Kansas for much of 2012.
Kansans have rarely seen anything worse. That is a powerful notion in a state that was buried under the Dust Bowl eight decades ago and suffered epic droughts in the 1950s and 1980s.
Prospects for the near future don't look much better, and state officials are well aware of the reality.
“No matter how you say it, conditions are dry, and there's no positive outlook," says Tracy Streeter, who heads the Kansas Water Office.
Streeter's counterparts in much of the country offer their own versions of that bleak forecast. From the slow- moving, suffocating drought that wreaked havoc on crop conditions, to quick-punching, deadly tornadoes and tropical storms, many states are still picking up the pieces from 2012, while debating how best to mitigate what's on the horizon.
In Kansas and Texas, that means pushing water conservation and weighing investments in infrastructure that could tap new supplies. States in the West will be looking for ways to prevent or neutralize destructive wildfires that have accompanied the hot, dry weather. Along the hurricane-ravaged Mid-Atlantic coast, where policymakers are finally getting relief from Washington, questions loom about where and how to rebuild along the seashore.
But many states looking to guard against extreme and unpredictable weather are simultaneously struggling to fund basic government services. With that backdrop, states will aim to boost resilience using fewer resources.
Costliest year on record
Almost every state was touched by major natural disasters in 2012. Only Maine, Michigan, Vermont and Wisconsin were left unaffected by weather events whose cost exceeded $1 billion each, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
NOAA is still calculating the financial blows dealt by Hurricane Sandy and the near-nationwide drought, but those damages are almost certain to make 2012 one of the costliest years on record.
With Kansas at the epicenter, the drought at its peak gripped about two-thirds of the continental U.S. It killed 123 people and destroyed billions of dollars' worth of crops and cattle, elevating food prices. It still lingers across more than half the country.
Last year was also the nation's hottest on record, creating prime conditions for wildfires. Some 9.2 million acres — mostly in the West — were destroyed. That total includes Colorado's Waldo Canyon Fire, which devoured some 340 homes in just four hours. Only two years in recorded history have seen more acres burned in the U.S.
Fire suppression cost some states tens of millions of dollars, exhausting what was budgeted. In Idaho, where fire tore through 1.25 million acres of land last year, federal and state agencies combined to spend about $200 million.
“This impacts any governor's budget," says Gov. Butch Otter. “That's less money that I have for social services. That's less money I have for education."
The deadliest disaster
But Sandy was the year's deadliest disaster. Churning up the East Coast in late October, its powerful winds and rain — and the flooding that came with them — overwhelmed some of the nation's largest population centers, killing 131 people, destroying thousands of homes and businesses, and cutting off water and electricity to millions of people.
Calls for more cautious coastal management are hardly new. But last year's vivid examples of what can go wrong have turned up their volume.
In Maryland, Gov. Martin O'Malley last month ordered state agencies to consider sea level rise and flood risks, using updated guidelines, in all new and rebuilt state structures. The Climate Change and Coast Smart Construction Executive Order also directs state environmental regulators to work with local communities to develop new plans for development along the coast.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has launched expert panels to study coastal infrastructure and the state's emergency response capabilities. The panels have already offered recommendations, some of which will be costly. Among them are creating a gas reserve, constructing a depot carrying emergency provisions, creating an emergency text message alert system and training citizen first responders. Experts have also recommended that the state update its building code.
Rebuilding in New Jersey
Meanwhile, in New Jersey, where Sandy damaged or wiped away some 340,000 homes, storm response will take center stage in the 2013 legislative session. Most notably, lawmakers will weigh how quickly and carefully to rebuild along the state's battered coastline. Unlike many coastal states, New Jersey allows property owners to rebuild in the same spot where they were hit.
In a State of the State speech devoted largely to recovery efforts, however, Gov. Chris Christie did not suggest any major changes to the state's development policy. A spokesman for the governor did not respond to questions about the issue, saying in an email: “There are a host of issues that will need to be examined."
Elsewhere, the still-unfolding drought disaster is weighing on public officials' minds. In Kansas, where river levels have hit historic lows, policymakers say they are preparing for the worst, and asking local officials and farmers to grit their teeth and do the same.
Responding to the drought in 2012, Kansas reformed its water policy, amending the state's “use it or lose it" water law, which critics said encouraged farmers and others to waste water so they could maintain access to it. The state also expanded water banking, allowing water rights holders to sell excess resources. This year, legislators will consider whether to make further changes, while pushing regional collaboration among water systems.
A more high-profile debate will take place in Texas, whose booming population is draining its scarce water supply. There will be a flurry of water proposals this year. Joe Straus, the House speaker, has called water the most pressing issue on legislators' crowded 2013 agenda.
Much of the talk surrounds finding money to begin implementing the state's water plan, which calls for $53 billion in recommended infrastructure upgrades — including the construction of 20 new reservoirs — which would help Texas meet about one-quarter of its water needs over the next half century, according to state projections. In the past, water plans have gone unfunded.