Water use and drought

BY now, images of unusually low rivers, dry croplands, and discouraged farmers are all too familiar. Some 1,400 counties have been declared disaster areas. Comparisons are being made to the drought that led to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

Efforts are under way to cushion ranchers and farmers from immediate financial hardship. Such financial support is crucial. Policymakers should remember that many farmers may feel the effects of the drought on income long after it breaks, which it will. Reduced crop yields could send foreign customers to other countries for grain, corn, and soybeans they normally buy from the United States. As it was, farmers were just beginning to recover from a debt crisis.

Consistent, steady funding for climate research is also needed. Conditions that form and dissipate the drought's larger weather pattern are not well understood. The ability to understand such patterns will help this vital sector of the economy.

A more fundamental issue lies beyond immediate aid for distressed ranchers and farmers, however: human interaction with the environment.

We're not referring to the so-called greenhouse effect - when certain gases build in the atmosphere, trap heat, and lead to long-term warming of the global climate. The gases result from a number of processes; but the buildup has accelerated with the burning of fossil fuels such as coal or oil. Scientists discount this effect as a factor in the drought.

Rather, we mean the more immediate choices people make based on what they know - or take for granted - about a region's water resources and climate. These range from which crops to grow, how to grow them, or how quickly to replace leaky water mains, to leaving the tap running while doing dishes.

Some stricken areas, notably in the Great Plains, show a consistent pattern of recurring extremely dry weather. Technology has allowed farmers to grow high-value, climate-sensitive crops in these areas. Such crops, however, often can't be consistently sustained without drawing down vital underground water supplies that cannot be quickly replenished. It may make more sense to shift to crops that may be worth less on the market, but because of their greater tolerance to drought will provide a steadier income.

Past consumption patterns seem to change little when some areas are faced with a so-called hydrological drought - where water levels in lakes, streams, and reservoirs remain below historical standards. This kind of drought, which depletes moisture deep beneath the soil, makes it more difficult to cope with shorter-term, root-level agricultural droughts when they come. Such overlapping droughts are occurring in parts of the Southeast.

Talk about an eventual greenhouse effect should not distract from the need to make more intelligent use of available climate information in planning, and to begin using water more efficiently today.

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