Iowa Public Television


Nebraska Group Helps With Planning For Droughts

posted on October 17, 2008

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House Democratic leaders unveiled a proposal this week aimed at reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent over the next four decades.

In a letter explaining the 461-page measure, Representatives John Dingell of Michigan and Rick Boucher of Virginia – both Democrats – claimed regulation of greenhouse gases in the United States is imperative.

But Representative Joe Barton, a Republican from Texas, said the bill would lead the country off "the economic cliff."

While the full extent of climate change remains to be seen, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates the financial costs of drought to be $6-8 billion annually in the United States alone.

But as Brandi Kruse discovered in Nebraska, a group of experts is working to minimize the impact of drought.

While most scientists acknowledge that global climate change is a real phenomenon, but debate continues on as to the exact cause. One theory is the increase in the level of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. According to Elwynn Taylor, Iowa State University Extension Climatologist, the amount of carbon dioxide in the air has increased by almost 20 percent since the 1950s but he's not ready to lay total blame for climate change on increased C02 levels.

Elwynn Taylor, Iowa State University Extension: "I don't consider it a good thing to change something as much as we've changed the carbon dioxide no matter what its affects understood and not understood might be. It's not a good thing to have made that big change...We really need to be correcting it even if we don't know what it's doing because we know we did it."

Taylor says the severe weather swings of the past few years fit historical patterns. With climate conditions lining up for a cataclysmic drought, he can only point to those records to make a prediction despite the increase in carbon dioxide levels.

Elwynn Taylor, Iowa State University Extension: "If we're going to have a 'dust bowl-like' time we'll expect it to be in the years immediately surrounding 2025, if nature is still in control of the climate and the weather. And I suspect it is to the point that we will probably be the first time that we've had weather as harsh as we had back around '36, the dust bowl."

While the effects of a drought are more often seen in dry river beds and parched fields the economic impact of a drought has a far greater reach. Drought costs the United States billions of dollars annually due to losses in the agriculture, transportation, recreation, and energy sectors.

Mike Hayes, National Drought Mitigation Center: "It kind of gives you the idea of the scale that droughts, the effect that droughts have in the United States. That estimate was higher than any other natural hazard, higher than hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, blizzards in the impact of those hazards causing the United States."

Mike Hayes is the director of the National Drought Mitigation Center, or NDMC. Established in 1995, the NDMC is now part of the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Mike Hayes, National Drought Mitigation Center: "...they are a creeping phenomenon. Usually you don't realize you're in a drought until its weeks or months down the road into that event. And then you realize, hey, we're getting pretty dry and we're having some impacts now. The tornadoes, hurricanes, blizzards are not like that. The impacts are instantaneous. And they make the news."

The primary job of the NDMC is to help communities, states, and even countries reduce the potential catastrophic effects of drought by helping government officials set trigger points that will initiate some kind of drought prevention strategy.

Hayes says the drought planning process really began after the United States experienced severe drought in the 1970's. When the center was formed, there were 20 states with drought plans. Today, there are 39.

The NDMC stresses preparedness and risk management over crisis management.

Mike Hayes, National Drought Mitigation Center: "It really takes the mystery out of the drought planning process and takes away some of the guessing game...and gives them concrete steps that they can take in order to develop their own drought plan."

An important part in the planning process is making sure water sources are secure in case of drought. The NDMC and the Nebraska Department of Health And Human Services work hand-in-hand to ensure there is enough water during a dry season.

Jack Daniel, Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services: "Drought ranks very high in terms of water shortage issues primarily because a drought is an extended period of time and stresses not only the infrastructure of our water system, but the aquifers and as compared to a flood or a tornado or an ice storm, that's a very local event..."

Having a drought mitigation plan is part of the Nebraska Safe Drinking Water Act. The law requires communities to check wells and install water service meters, which can indicate how much water is actually being used.

Jack Daniel, Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services: "The pre-planning saves a lot of money and inconvenience. If communities have a good idea as to what's coming at 'em, they can basically then take that information and start to their local papers or own local way of contacting their people."

Drought mitigation plans typically include establishing trigger points based on data collected from various sources including precipitation amounts, stream flow, and soil moisture. Once a trigger point is reached a community can take appropriate action to reduce the impact of a drought.

Hayes and his staff are constantly watching precipitation levels around the country to pinpoint regions that may be vulnerable to a drought.

One source the NDMC relies on is data collected from climate monitoring stations. On a daily basis, readings from various monitoring devices, including solar radiation detectors, precipitation meters and soil moisture gauges are transmitted to the main computer at the center. From there, the data goes to people like Steve Gaul at the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources.

Steve Gaul, Nebraska Department of Natural Resources: "We're working very hard right now to achieve, to have the data necessary to tell us what that sustainable balance is so we're doing research and modeling that helps show what various types of water uses will result in that balance."

In Nebraska, the DNR appropriates water resources. Gaul says generally, the state is on a first come first serve basis. Those who were first to apply for water rights in a region, so-called senior users, get water first. Everyone else, so-called junior users, are next in line to receive water in case of a shortage.

Steve Gaul, Nebraska Department of Natural Resources: "We look at what is available for senior water users and if we have to cut off a junior water user because there's not enough water there, I mean that's what happens as you get into drought situations. We don't like that, but that's what has to happen at some point...."

And according to Hayes, for a drought mitigation plan to work successfully it all comes back to working together.

Mike Hayes, NDMC: "I think as we go into the future, we have to understand that droughts and water issues are going to de directly connected to the issues that we're facing with energy, the issues that we're facing with food production and some of the other major issues that we're facing. Not only in the United States, but internationally as well."

For Market To Market, I'm Brandi Kruse

Tags: agriculture disasters drought Nebraska news weather