By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Drought is not dramatic. At least in the beginning. It’s far more lumbering than other disasters, presenting as a slow burn, crisping crops, hardening the ground, turning rangeland into desert.

US Drought Monitor for May 20, 2014At the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Nebraska, the staffers sometimes joke that drought is the Rodney Dangerfield of disasters. It gets no respect.

On one level, that’s easy to understand. A hurricane or tornado pounds into town, shredding houses, exploding windows and turning timber into missiles commands attention.

Drought is the sleepy cousin, the anti-climatic, climatic event.

And yet, the US drought, in its fourth year, could greatly damage crops and sap municipal water supplies. Already, more than 30 small towns in Texas have been warned that they have water supplies for 90 days or less and could simply run dry.

Welcome rainfall over the Memorial Day weekend, which brought up to four inches of rain to parts of dry western Texas and Arkansas, and soaking rains of three to six inches across the Austin region, may help reservoirs recover, to an extent. News stories cheered the rains, with one report out of parched, remote Hale County in West Texas gleefully switching its Twitter feed from pictures of dust storms to real time updates on every fraction of an inch of rainfall that graced that rural area.

But the weekend rains, while helpful, will need to become a trend before this entrenched drought cycle ends.

Dozens of other effects and possible effects of the US drought are being reported, and may well continue:

  •  Reservoirs across the Southwest are alarmingly low, running about two-thirds of normal in Arizona, about half of normal in New Mexico and only about one-third of average levels in Nevada, according to the USDA. In Texas, the picture varies by region, but the Hill Country and Northern Plains have suffered significant losses with many reservoirs at half or even one-third of their conservation capacity. Buchanan Lake, for instance, was reported to have dropped to only about one-third, 311,460 acre feet, of its normal 860,607 acre feet capacity, according to the April Water Conditions report by the Texas Water Development Board.
  •  Hydroelectric power is waning Texas, with power from the Lower Colorado River Authority producing in 2013 only about one-quarter of the power it generated in 2011, a direct impact of lower water levels, according to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT).

Drought will affect crops, produce and prices

In anticipation of lighter allotments and stingy Mother Nature, produce growers in California have left an estimated 800,000 acres idle this year. That will affect their bottom line, prices at the grocery and the national economy. (Though a silver lining might be that the soil will get a rest.)

Across the Western US, the drought is affecting almost too many crops to name, but those that are taking a certain hit include winter wheat, almonds, avocados, cotton and all the water-intensive fruits and vegetables that won’t be planted in California’s Central Valley.

On the plains, ranchers who have been culling herds for three years may face another year of tough decisions as they weigh the economics of trucking in hay or reducing their headcount.

Ranchers and farmers in the southern plains saw some relief as rains fell over Memorial weekend. Still, experts say the drought, if it continues, will reshape the economic and actual landscape in 2014.

“We are seeing conditions that rival those we saw during the Dust bowl in the 30s,” said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC) in an interview with GRN on May 22.

While the dust events, which these days are called haboobs, have increased, especially in the winter months this past year, they’re not as bad as the massive rolling black clouds that devastated farms in the 1930s, Fuchs said.

Still, their incidence at all is an ominous indicator.

“Even with our changes in farming and tilling practices and the erosion controls that we have in place, drought can still override those and we are seeing some of those [dust bowl] conditions.”

Specifically, Fuchs was referring to parts of western Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, where dry conditions, exacerbated by dry winds and summer heat, have created dust storms capable of stripping top soil and compounding drought’s insult.

Only time will tell how badly ranchers and crop producers suffer in 2014, Fuchs said.

Despite receiving some relief in the past few days (mainly in Texas), the area remains many inches behind in rainfall overall for the year. The Texas panhandle was rated as being in “exceptional drought,” the most severe category on the May 20 US Drought Monitor map. That means its hydrology (aquifers and streams) and ecology (natural and crop vegetation) have been significantly harmed and will take time to repair.

Drought is stealthly and has a long tail

Overall about 38 percent of the contiguous US was gripped by drought according to that most recent US Drought Monitor map. The weekend rains provided some easing, and the next map is expected to show improvement.

But with 28 percent of the country listed experiencing “severe” drought or worse (“extreme” or “exceptional”), the long dry spell will continue to pinch crops and livelihoods, even in areas where farmers have been growing mountains of produce, if not effortlessly, then efficiently.

But before we talk about California, we need to look at the reasons the US is drought-stricken.

First, the country has been in a dry cycle that’s many climatologists say was worsened by the record heat delivered by climate change, particularly in 2012, the hottest year on record overall.

This natural and recurring dry cycle, based on winds and ocean temperatures in the Pacific, the feeder area for precipitation in the Plains, is called La Niña.

Some meteorologists are predicting that the US will move into the countervailing cycle, known as El Niño, which would bring wetter weather.

But if that doesn’t happen, the four-year drought could continue its slow-motion wreckage. The fact that Fuchs even mentioned the Anasazi, the long-ago inhabitants of the US Southwest who abandoned their pueblo cities when the climate dried up, ending their cultivation of the land, suggests that climatologists have been considering worst case scenarios.

This current dry cycle, because of its duration and severity, will have lasting impacts that cannot be overcome with even one rainy season. Aquifers that have sunk to new lows – such as parts of the Ogallala in the Southern range of the aquifer – and streams and rivers that have run dry will not bounce back immediately. First, the rains will soak only the topsoil, or even run off because the ground has become hard and unreceptive.

“What happens is when you have multi-year events like this, you’re not replenishing it (the aquifer). You’re not recharging to the degree of what your withdrawals have been,” Fuchs explained.

On a brighter note, other drought cycles, such as those in the 1950s and 1930s, were difficult, but the land and the farmers recovered.

But before you take much comfort in that last thought, remember there are more people than ever drawing on the natural groundwater, reservoirs, rivers and melting snow than ever before.

That’s really problem No. 2 as Fuchs explains it. Too many people sucking on too many straws cramming into the water supplies.

Take California. The current drought there has virtually the entire state into the severe, extreme or exceptional drought categories. But it’s not that different from what happened in the 1970s when low snowpack and inadequate rainfall resulted in two years of serious drought.

“The big difference is there’s 23 million more people in California than there were in the mid-70s and so you’ve added that many more straws into that cup of available water and you have to manage with that in mind,” he said.

California’s system, indeed most water systems across the entire South – even Atlanta had a water crisis in 2008 – were built for smaller projected populations.

Agriculture, to feed growing US and world population, also sips deeply on its straw. One study found that agriculture in two key areas, the High Plains and California’s Central Valley, accounted for more than 50 percent of the depletion of groundwater supplies in the US since 1900.

Water-intensive crops like corn, which have expanded over the decades into arid areas as US farmers follow the subsidies that make this a lucrative crop, also take a toll.

But each region faces individual factors that affect its water vulnerability. Some cities are over-reliant on the shrinking Colorado River system. Others, such as Los Angeles, have sprawled into megalopolises, despite being dependent on water piped in from hundreds of miles away.   Now that LA’s source region also is suffering, the water scarcity issue is stalking the entire Golden State.

For the Western half of the US, where these issues are most acute, there are plenty of reasons to practice better water conservation, Fuchs said.

People should take a page from desert residents who’ve installed xeriscape or drought-tolerant landscaping. They also can make water do double duty with gray water use, watering outdoor plants with bath or wash water.

If they can afford it, they should install low-flow toilets and showers, take shorter showers, never leave faucets running and only run full loads of dirty dishes and laundry, he said.

“If you save a couple gallons per person per day and you multiply that by millions of people that’s a lot of water, and that just helps to conserve more for later.”

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