Man-made “drought”

March 29, 2019 0 Comments

Did you catch Tony’s blog post recently about the Aral Sea, or maybe it should be called the Aral Pond. I have written about it in the past as well. It is a perfect example of human influence on the water resources and climate in that region. The sea itself is a man-made disaster, but the upstream areas that became productive farmland saw a benefit. Calculating if the overall change was a net benefit is difficult, but with so many people on the earth this type of calculation (pros vs. cons) needs to be made. If the world population keeps growing, the process could become more difficult.

The Colorado river is running dry

A similar situation is playing out in the American Southwest, particularly with the Colorado river and Lake Mead. Too many people are using too much water from the Colorado River and more people keep pouring into the region. You might recall this blog entry where I accurately predicted the effect of building a bigger aqueduct (or “straw”) to service Las Vegas with water. Lake Mead could reach “dead pool” status when the next major drought arrives.

Wait a minute…aren’t experts saying there is already a 19-year long drought in that area of the country?!

Yes, that is what some are saying, but it is misleading. It is an unfortunate state of affairs that we receive increasingly more inaccurate information from national news outlets like this particular story claiming a 19-year drought.

There is an official drought measurement standard in use within the United States. It is recorded by the “Drought Monitor“. Conveniently, there is an archive that anyone can view for themselves to see if there has been consistent drought in the Colorado Basin for 19 years. Even more conveniently, the record goes back 19 years!

Widespread drought in September of 2012

If you have the time, take a tour through the Drought Monitor archives. You will notice that drought has typically been more frequent in the western U.S. than in the east. You will notice quite a few periods of drought in Wisconsin from 2003 to 2009 but then not too much after that (except for 2012). For the Colorado River basin you will notice that there was a severe drought from 2002 to 2004, some moderate drought in spots during 2006 and 2007 (mainly south in Arizona). Again in 2011 there was some severe drought in Arizona. A severe drought struck much of the region in 2012 and 2013. A bit of moderate drought was present in spots from 2014 through 2016. Finally, there was a severe drought in 2018. That seems like a lot of drought, however most of the rest of the time there was not much drought, just “abnormally dry” conditions in a few locales. So about 7 or 8 out of the 19 years did not have much drought at all, in fact, many of those times, precipitation was well above normal and the Colorado River had normal flows.

Hardly any drought in May of 2017

It is a far cry from 19 continuous years of drought. Where did the “19 years of drought” come from? I seem to recall reading an article recently, stating that the average soil moisture in the Colorado River basin was below normal for the last 19 years. That might be the case, but it was not a basin-wide “drought” for 19 consecutive years.

If there was truly a drought for 19 years, then it would come close to rivaling some of the mega-droughts of the distant past (as detailed in this past blog post).

If the weather keeps turning warmer then droughts will likely become more frequent, or if they are not more frequent they might be more intense when they do happen. In any case, the exploding population of the region does not help the situation (less people = less problems?). It is a good sign that the 7 states using water from the Colorado river are discussing ways to “make it work”. Here is a perspective on a recent deal from Arizona media. Here is a perspective from the states in the upper part of the basin. One criticism of the new pact is that even though they plan to reduce draws from the river, they plan on increasing the use of groundwater. Draining aquifers to keep millions of newly arriving people “afloat” is probably not the best idea either.

Meteorologist Justin Loew

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