LINCOLN, Neb. -- There is currently no serious drought in the United States, which gives water managers an unusual opportunity to take the punch out of the next drought, says Dr. Donald A. Wilhite, director of the National Drought Mitigation Center.
Leading climatologists, representatives of state and urban water agencies, policy analysts, and experienced emergency officials walked water managers through the basics of a good drought plan at "Planning for the Next Drought," a workshop held last month in Salt Lake City, organized by the Mitigation Center and sponsored by the Bureau of Reclamation.
"Cities and states should be looking at where they're most vulnerable," Dr. Wilhite said. "And if there's anything you can do, individually or collectively, to determine where your vulnerabilities are, and then reduce those vulnerabilities, that's what drought planning is all about."
The drought of 1996 highlighted the United States' continuing vulnerability to drought, Wilhite said. In Texas alone, costs and losses to agriculture and related industries exceeded $5 billion. The drought dramatically affected agricultural production and ranching throughout the West, and wildfire ravaged parched landscapes. The Federal Emergency Management Agency estimates that on average, drought costs the United States $6 billion to $8 billion annually.
While science cannot yet predict when and where drought will occur in North America, historic data reveal that drought is unquestionably a normal, recurring feature of climate. Although there are many causes of drought in North America, the drought of 1996 was associated with the La Nina weather pattern of unusually cold temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. A La Nina year often follows an El Nino year, such as the current one.
Rich Tinker, a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center, spoke at the workshop about El Nino's likely effects on winter weather patterns. El Nino often results in warm dry winters in the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies, with less moisture stored as snowpack.
Despite better planning and preparedness, vulnerability to drought may actually be increasing, because the U.S. population is shifting toward chronically water-short western cities. And if global climate change occurs as forecast, climatic extremes such as drought and flooding will become more frequent.
The National Drought Mitigation Center is based at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and is part of the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources. The National Drought Mitigation Center also provides administrative leadership and staff resources for the Western Drought Coordination Council.
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