Challenges of dry weather

WEATHER is taken for granted, until some adversity like the rampaging fires of Florida this past week arrests attention. Such events are, however, treated as quick, isolated occurrences -- as media brush fires, the human or natural tragedy reported from its apex to embers, and then dropped from sight. The bravery of those who fight such calamities, the generosity of government and private agencies that extend aid, are again to be noted in the series of Florida fires. Dozens of homes and thousands of acres of brush and woodland have been destroyed. Those everywhere who prayed to help the Floridians this past weekend no doubt felt rewarded by the advent of rains.

Natural adversities can sometimes be warnings of larger trends, however. The current East Coast drought had been evident in Florida since at least last September. Periodic rains have brought temporary relief. The drought, rated from moderate to extreme, extends up the East Coast through Maine; it reaches inland into Tennessee and Kentucky. The worst area is perhaps the Central Atlantic region from Atlantic City to the southern part of Maryland's Eastern Shore.

Low water reserves are the problem in the East. Winter is normally the time for water levels to build in rivers, lakes, and reservoirs; agricultural and industrial use is lowest then, and precipitation often abundant. Reservoirs serving New York City, normally at 100 percent capacity by early May, were reported at only 64 percent. With water tables low, what agricultural weather experts call ``timely rain'' will have to be relied on to get crops through. That is true this year in the Midwest as well, where farmers had been able to plant crops early and so far have been getting by on timely rain for germination.

Government officials' appeals to the public this spring to conserve water use should be taken seriously. After the drought of the 1960s, regions like the Northeast improved their storage capacity significantly. But those reservoirs are low. In addition, clearings for firebreaks should perhaps be considered for dwellings in suburban or rural tracts where fires could sweep.

In its haste to advance, society can neglect fundamental precautions. Nature, it should not be too obvious to say, remains a part of the setting in which man lives; it has not been banished or rendered obsolete. Whatever else covered shopping malls do, they offer no universal haven from responsibility for the world outside. This year the early signs point to the wisdom of husbanding water resources. In light of shifting populations and changing land use, another review of public policies and facilities, like that of the 1960s, should be completed.

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