Dry future?

Posted October 22nd, 2007 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Scenarios of the future


Not mentioned in the otherwise excellent NYT article by Jon Gertner regarding drought in the Southwestern US, was any mention of endangered species or any other environmental trade-offs that are the focal point of conflict in Georgia, where, according to Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, the state delegation has united “to put our people before sturgeon and mussels.” That is probably because most of the remaining species and habitats in the Lower Colorado river have literally been externalized – across the border in Mexico, where the Endangered Species Act does not apply, and costs don’t count, so the choice is a silent one. These are choices that should not have had to be made, that could have been avoided with a little bit of planning, and by using the capacity for foresight that science provides. As is pointed out in the report I contributed to regarding Ecosystem Changes and Water Policy Choices in the Lower Colorado river basin, fixing leaks in the plumbing – which now supply a trickle of water to the Colorado River Delta and keep it distinguishable from the surrounding desert won’t solve the problem of sustaining a growing population in a region that is drying up. In the west, the situation is perceived as less urgent only because they have known this for along time, and, as Donald Wilhite points out, unlike in Atlanta, have more water storage capacity. The decision in Atlanta will be a political one – because of the endangered species act, it will at least have to be made with some awareness of the trade-offs being made.

These – and other droughts, will undoubtedly also raise awareness and provoke much discussion of global warming. This needs to be directed towards both adaptation and mitigation measures. Regarding drought elsewhere in the world, RealClimate has some guest commentary by Figen Mekik regarding drought in the Mediterranean, well worth reading in its entirety, in which he says:

Though it is “debated” in the US, most people in Turkey consider AGW to be a given. This is generally a good attitude, of course, but it opened the door for some government and city officials to simply blame AGW for drought instead of their incompetence in dealing with it. As a result, the Turkish General Directorate of Disaster Affairs started discussing whether AGW should be listed under “natural disasters” in order to provide better risk assessment and adaptation plans, and to prohibit building new structures in “high risk” areas.

One of the consequences of ignoring science is that lessons get learned the hard way, through crises. But it doesn’t have to be that way. In the report on the Colorado river, we used scenarios of 2050 to explore the consequences of water policy options, while we still have some acceptable ones – roughly based on the approach used in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. There are, of course, other related approaches, such as one being developed by Leon Fuerth in the project on Forward Engagement, the objective of which is:

to encourage a more profound and continuous interaction between long-range forecasting and long-range policy-making. Encouraging this development is key to better safeguarding our society from unanticipated, strategic surprise and, in particular, assuring the continued ability of democratic governance to successfully deal with an increasing rate of change in every area of human activity.

I once had the opportunity to hear him talk about this initiative at a lecture at the World Resources Institute. Since he was the National Security Adviser to Vice President Al Gore, it was hard to listen to the talk without pondering how the past seven years might have been different.

Addendum: I neglected to include a link to John Fleck, whose excellent posts on the Georgia drought led me to the watercrunch blog. Among other things, he has a table of the Palmer Hydrologic Drought Index for north-central Georgia which shows that the current level of drought is not an unusual occurrence over the past century. What has changed is the level of vulnerability. I found a similar situation in the Washington DC area during the drought in 1989, when doing a graduate school research project. I may have to dig that up and see what is going on now.

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