Future changes in precipitation regimes are likely to impact species richness in water-limited plant communities. Regional, spatial relationships between precipitation and richness could offer information about how altered rainfall will impact local communities, assuming that processes driving the regional relationship are also dominant at fine spatial and short temporal scales. To test this assumption, we compared spatial and temporal relationships between precipitation and both species richness and species turnover in central North American grasslands. Across a broad geographic gradient, mean plant species richness in 1-m2 plots increased significantly with mean annual precipitation. In contrast, over a 36-yr period at one mixed-grass prairie in the center of the regional gradient, single-year precipitation and richness were poorly correlated, and consecutive wet years had little effect on richness. Instead, richness increased most in wet years that followed dry years. Geographically dispersed sites receiving different levels of mean annual precipitation displayed strong differences in species composition, whereas temporal variation in precipitation at one site was not related to compositional dissimilarity, indicating that species turnover plays a key role in generating the regional relationship. Analyses of individual species’ presence-absence suggest that the lagged temporal responses reflect environmental germination cues more than resource competition. These complex cues may dampen the initial impact of altered precipitation on diversity, but over the long term, turnover in species composition should lead to changes in richness, as in the regional, spatial relationship. How quickly this long-term response develops may depend on the colonization rates of species better adapted to the altered rainfall regime.