Energy & Environment

Dry Spell

Places can't stop drought from coming their way, but they can control its devastating effects.
by | March 2003

Water officials in Denver didn't worry last April when the usual spring showers failed to materialize and people started watering their lawns two months ahead of schedule. After all, the city's reservoirs were more than three-quarters full, and one look at the snow-capped peaks of the Rocky Mountains seemed to promise a healthy spring run- off.

What they failed to check was the soil. Underneath the snow pack, it was seriously parched, and the mountain forests were desperately thirsty. When the spring melt began, the soil and trees drank up much of the water that would have filled streams in a normal year. May brought more trouble in the form of dry winds that vaporized much of the snow before it could melt, shrinking the snow pack to 13 percent of normal. Still, the water utility, blithely assuming reservoirs would refill as normal, merely recommended that people voluntarily cut their water use by 10 percent. Their light-hearted slogans--"Real Men Dry Shave" and "No Water, No Bikinis"--failed to stir much public concern.

It was only in July, when the flow of the South Platte River had slowed to less than 500 acre-feet of water compared with 30,000 normally and reservoirs had dropped to 60 percent of capacity, that Denver Water realized it had a crisis on its hands. In fact, it was confronting--and continues to confront--the worst drought in the central Rockies in 300 years.

The Mile High City is not alone in its distress. Normally, about 10 percent of the country suffers very serious drought at any time, but last summer the rate soared to 38 percent, and more than half of the country experienced abnormally dry conditions, if not outright drought. No region was immune. Some 18,000 private wells went dry in Maine. South Carolina, which went through its fifth consecutive year of dryness, was staggered by $520 million in timber losses due to slower tree growth and the loss of drought-weakened trees to pine beetles. Low river levels led to a surge in hydroelectric power prices in the usually rain-drenched Pacific Northwest. And in the Plains states, Kansas farmers last year reported $1 billion in crop losses due to lack of rain.

This year may not be much better. Agricultural analysts predict that the mild, dry winter in the heartland will lead to a plague of grasshoppers in every state west of the Mississippi River this summer. And the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers warned it might have to close this year's shipping season on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers early because water levels may be too low for many barges.

While the recent drought has been, by many measures, as bad or worse than any in the past century, it isn't the first wake-up call to states that they can't afford to be lax about plans to deal with parched conditions. And there will be more warnings in the future. As the population continues to grow and shift both from rural areas to urban areas and from the humid East to the arid Southwest, water supplies are growing tighter. That suggests it may not take much of a deficiency in rainfall or snowfall to produce water shortages in the future. Add the possibility--unproven, but feared by many scientists--that global warming will lead to more frequent droughts, and you have a strong case that states--and localities--should get a lot more serious about dealing with drought.


To their credit, states are becoming more aware of the risks. While just two states had formal drought plans in 1982, some 33 have such plans today, and seven more are working on the issue. But these plans generally deal with how governments will respond to a drought once its effects become apparent--an approach that falls far short of what hydrologists say is needed to avoid most of the damage. "If you wait until after a drought begins, all you can do is try to manage resources day to day," says Donald Wilhite, director of the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Nebraska. "The time to prepare for a drought is before the drought begins."

Wilhite believes states have been shortsighted partly because the federal government is so quick to provide disaster-relief funds. That, in turn, diminishes the incentive to invest in preventive measures, such as monitoring conditions to detect when droughts might occur. "We have spent a lot of money putting out brushfires, and long-term monitoring has gotten the axe," says Barry Norris, the chief drought official for Oregon's Water Resources Department. For a capital investment of just $1.5 million, plus about $200,000 in annual operating expenses, Norris says he could install an effective network of equipment to monitor stream flows, snow pack and soil moisture levels. But in years when there is no drought, the expenditure for such a program can't compete with other state spending priorities. And when droughts occur, policy makers are too focused on short-term solutions to invest in policies that would pay off only in the long run.

Compounding the problem, state governments aren't set up to address drought issues comprehensively. In many cases, drought policy is the responsibility of agriculture departments, which in turn are beholden to farm constituencies that have grown adept at winning disaster- relief funds. In others, drought planning falls under the purview of emergency-preparedness agencies, which lack expertise in long-term water issues. And some state governments, especially in the West, feel thwarted by time-encrusted water-rights laws and powerful interest groups. "We could do more to be prepared for when the big droughts hit, but it's hard for me to get anything going," says Brad Lundahl, who as section manager for the Conservation and Drought Planning Section of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, is the state of Colorado's top drought official. "Water is such a touchy subject here, and the water community doesn't want to give us much authority."


Denver's experience is a textbook example of complacency, the first phase of what hydrologists call a "hydro-illogical cycle" that characterizes government's traditional response to drought. Even though drought is as inevitable, if not as predictable, as the change of seasons, governments tend to ignore the danger when water is abundant. As a result, they are slow to see it coming and ill-prepared for it when it arrives. Then, when they belatedly realize they are in a drought, their responses often are either ineffectual or even counterproductive.

"In retrospect, we should have been watching soil moisture and tree moisture, not just reservoir levels and snow pack," says Elizabeth Gardner, Denver Water's manager of conservation. "We also needed to make people recognize the seriousness of the drought earlier. And we needed a drought plan that was much more detailed."

In the hydro-illogical cycle, concern can quickly turn to panic in the absence of comprehensive drought planning. Unfortunately, panic rarely makes for good policy. In Colorado, for instance, drought has led officials to take a new look at sweeping proposals that had long been rejected as too costly or inimical to Coloradoans' sense of their own state. One proposal, dubbed the "Big Straw," would involve pumping water from the Colorado River near the Utah border back to the Continental Divide. The cost would be staggering: The state would have to build a 200-mile pipeline, at least two large reservoirs, a pumping system that would require the equivalent of 80 percent of the annual output of Hoover Dam to lift the water 4,000 feet over the Rockies, and new systems for cooling and purifying the water--all at a potential cost of $5 billion.

An even more draconian idea would involve clear-cutting large swaths of federal and state forests so that more snow would reach the ground, where, the theory goes, it eventually would melt and run into the streams that supply city reservoirs. "Logging for water," as that idea is known, could require cutting as much as 40 percent of the trees in watersheds, a process that not only would be expensive but also could damage natural habitats and do untold harm to the recreation and tourism industries.

Critics say such costs are not only destructive but also entirely avoidable. With prudent planning, they contend, a state such as Colorado can manage droughts for many years without taking such drastic and costly steps. "The cities of Colorado don't have to worry about running out of water for decades, or even centuries," says Douglas Kenney, research associate at the University of Colorado's Natural Law Resources Center. But, he adds, avoiding panic-induced measures will require policy makers to develop a whole new mind-set. "We have to stop thinking about drought as a phenomenon to be avoided at all costs, and think of it instead as a normal part of life," Kenney argues. "We have to get more used to the idea of risk management."


Risk management could be the byword of a new drought strategy that is taking shape in Georgia, where a broad-based working group has proposed a state drought plan that emphasizes permanent reforms rather than emergency responses. "We decided that a drought plan isn't about what you do in a drought, it's about what you do in advance to mitigate the effects of drought," says Robert Kerr, who, as director of the Pollution Prevention Assistance Division for the state Environmental Protection Division, led the planning effort.

One key proposal, for instance, would regulate outdoor watering all the time--not just during droughts. The plan is controversial, even though it would allow homeowners to water their yards three times a week, enough to keep any home landscape in good health. Indeed, it would make many yards healthier than they are today. That's because most homeowners tend to over-water their plants, a practice that prevents the plants from developing deep root systems that enable them to find water if the soil around them dries up. Rose Mary Seymour, an engineer and horticulturist at the University of Georgia, argues that modest restrictions on watering would both reduce the risk of drought by saving water and make droughts that do occur less damaging. Seymour works with landscapers and gardeners to encourage xeriscape, a system of water-efficient landscaping design and maintenance.

The focus on outdoor watering reflects a simple fact: For many municipal water systems, landscape irrigation represents the biggest, and probably least essential, category of water consumption. In Denver, for instance, outdoor watering accounts for 40 percent of all water use. But Georgia's growing commitment to water conservation involves other sectors as well. The state has been conducting water audits of major institutions, and the drought-planning group has studied ways to improve the efficiency of agricultural irrigation. In addition, the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, a state-created agency that charts water policy for municipal governments in the Atlanta region, is preparing a list of urban water conservation measures it believes could reduce water demand by as much as 15 percent--or 1 billion gallons a day--by 2030.

Among the most promising reforms: requiring that existing homes be retrofitted with newer, water-efficient shower heads and toilets; paying homeowners rebates for buying more efficient washing machines; mandating rain-sensors that turn off automatic watering systems when they aren't needed; requiring the use of water meters for multi-family as well as single-family homes; and doing water audits for homes, hotels and commercial establishments.

Of course, even aggressive conservation won't avert all droughts, Georgia officials concede. So their plan also calls for a sophisticated early warning system. Instead of relying on a single drought indicator, as Denver Water officials did last year, the Georgia plan will look at four indicators--stream flows, groundwater levels, reservoir levels and precipitation patterns. Anytime one or more of these indicators drops below a certain level in a particular climate zone, the state would order new restrictions on outdoor watering. And those limits would stay in effect until all of the "triggers" that indicate drought conditions have taken a turn for the better.


Georgia's proposals represent a significant increase in the role of state government, but officials believe they are necessary to help avoid problems such as those in Denver last summer. There, a plethora of independent municipal water systems all decided for themselves whether there was a drought, how serious it was and what should be done about it. Officials at Denver Water believe the mixed messages they sent the public are a major reason its own watering restrictions proved ineffective for six crucial weeks last summer. (Denver-area water managers subsequently began meeting to develop a more coordinated effort.) Georgia officials believe their approach is the right balance between state and local control: The state would set minimum requirements and municipalities would be free to adopt more stringent standards. "There needs to be a state coordinating mechanism, but it needs to be sensitive to the local context," says Anne Steinemann, a Georgia Institute of Technology drought expert who advised Georgia on its planning effort.

The Georgia plan, however, also leaves some of the toughest decisions to local officials. For one thing, it gives them the responsibility to decide whether to reform water rates to promote conservation. Currently, many municipal water systems charge a flat rate regardless of how much water is consumed. Some even offer lower rates to heavy consumers. The lack of a clear price signal is one reason why some homeowners "turn their yards into rice paddies," says Roy Fowler, general manager of the Cobb County-Marietta Water Authority, a wholesale supplier for municipal water systems in the Atlanta area. Cobb-Marietta imposes a 25 percent surcharge on customers whose summer consumption exceeds 130 percent of their winter consumption. That, combined with such conservation measures as federally mandated water- efficient toilets, helped reduce per capita consumption among its customers from 146 gallons a day in 1990 to 130 gallons in 2000.

Fowler is one of a new breed of water managers. Traditionally, water managers defined their jobs mainly in terms of supply--that is, they sought to provide as much water as consumers wanted, with no questions asked. But today, Fowler says, "managing demand" is just as important. The reason boils down to basic economics: Conservation saves money. "A conscientious conservation program," Fowler notes, "costs pennies on the dollar compared to digging a hole in the ground and calling it a reservoir."

Still, conservation creates a new kind of risk for water managers. As they wring the inefficiencies out of current urban water systems, they will have fewer options for finding easy savings in the future. Aware of this problem, they are starting to look for other ways to minimize the disruption they could face in the worst droughts. Robert Kerr, who is shepherding the Georgia plan through the regulatory process, believes the ultimate solution may be the water equivalent of "rolling blackouts," in which some industries might be willing to curtail operations on certain days in return for a price break on their water.


Long before that happens, cities could negotiate arrangements to tap into water generally used for agricultural irrigation during serious droughts. That represents a substantial potential reserve in most states. In Georgia, for instance, farm irrigation accounts for 30 percent of the water consumed during non-drought years. What's more, there are ample models for how such a water-insurance system could work: Federal farm policies have made farmers well accustomed to the idea of forgoing production in exchange for cash payments. Georgia already has applied the principle to water. In 2001 and 2002, both serious drought years, the state conducted auctions to buy back irrigation rights from farmers. Last year, the auctions took 42,000 acres out of irrigation at a cost of $5.5 million, an arrangement that added about 25 percent to the flow of the Flint River in the southern part of the state.

Water-sharing arrangements have even more potential in the arid West, where agriculture accounts for a larger percentage of total water consumption than in Eastern states such as Georgia. Indeed, some Colorado municipalities already have negotiated deals to lease farmers' water rights during emergencies, and environmental groups in the Rocky Mountain state are pushing legislation that would clear potential legal barriers to additional transfers. Environmentalists see the idea not only as an alternative to mega-projects like the "Big Straw" but also as a way to preserve open space. There's no question that cities have the economic clout to buy up all the rural water they need for the foreseeable future, the environmentalists note. But cities will buy less--and hence keep more land in agricultural production longer--if they can reach agreements that ensure the water will be available to them in emergencies.

Such stand-by arrangements may sound like a common-sense solution, but they aren't a sure thing politically. In Georgia, water auctions have proven to be controversial with city voters. "A lot of people say, 'I had to cut off watering my lawn and I didn't get paid. Why should farmers?'" notes Jim Hook, a soil and water management specialist at the University of Georgia. "Farmers are such a small political constituency it's not clear there will be the political will to keep the water auctions up."

That points to perhaps the biggest challenge of all when it comes to planning for drought. Water issues are, to say the least, politically divisive. Many leaders are reluctant to take them on when there is no crisis to force the issue. Still, you don't have to be a weatherman to see that the issue can't be avoided forever. With continued population growth, conditions that are considered drought today could be the norm soon. Denver Water's long-range plans show, for instance, that the same degree of conservation the city ultimately achieved on an emergency basis last year--by fall, it had cut water consumption by 30 percent--will have to be a permanent way of life by 2050.

Will Denverites take the goal seriously once the snows return and refill their reservoirs? The eventual success of water restrictions last year offers reason to believe they will. But the hydro-illogical cycle suggests another outcome: a return to apathy. As John Steinbeck, chronicler of America's "Dust Bowl" drought years, noted, "It never failed that during the dry years people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way."


More from Energy & Environment