“We think of water as an unlimited resource,” he says. “But
what happens when you turn on the tap and it’s not there?”


From the dried lake beds of Florida to the
struggling ranches of California, a historic lack
of rain is changing how Americans live.

By Patrick O’Driscoll
DENVER – Drought, a fixture in much of the West
for nearly a decade, now covers more than
one-third of the continental USA. And it’s

As summer starts, half the nation is either
abnormally dry or in outright drought from
prolonged lack of rain that could lead to water
shortages, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor,
a weekly index of conditions. Welcome rainfall
last weekend from Tropical Storm Barry brought
short-term relief to parts of the fire-scorched
Southeast. But up to 50 inches of rain is needed
to end the drought there, and this is the driest
spring in the Southeast since record-keeping
began in 1895, according to the National Climatic
Data Center.

California and Nevada just recorded their driest
June-to-May period since 1924, and a lack of rain
in the West could make this an especially risky
summer for wildfires.

Coast to coast, the drought’s effects are as varied as the landscapes:

*In central California, ranchers are selling
cattle or trucking them out of state as grazing
grass dries up. In Southern California’s Antelope
Valley, rainfall at just 15% of normal erased the
spring bloom of California poppies.

*In South Florida, Lake Okeechobee, America’s
second-largest body of fresh water, fell last
week to a record low – an average 8.89feet above
sea level. So much lake bed is dry that 12,000
acres of it caught fire last month. Saltwater
intrusion threatens to contaminate municipal
wells for Atlantic coastal towns as fresh
groundwater levels drop.

*In Alabama, shallow ponds on commercial catfish
farms are dwindling, and more than half the corn
and wheat crops are in poor condition.

Dry episodes have become so persistent in the
West that some scientists and water managers say
drought is the “new normal” there. Reinforcing
that notion are global-warming projections
warning of more and deeper dry spells in the
Southwest, although a report in last week’s
Science magazine challenges the climate models
and suggests there will be more rainfall
worldwide later this century.

“It seems extremely likely that drought will
become more the norm” for the West, says Kathy
Jacobs of the Arizona Water Institute, a research
partnership of the state’s three universities.
“Droughts will continue to come and go, but Å 
higher temperatures are going to produce more
water stress.” That’s because warmer temperatures
in the Southwest boost demand for water and cause
more to evaporate from lakes and reservoirs.

“The only good news about drought is it forces us
to pay attention to water management,” says Peter
Gleick of the Pacific Institute, a think tank in
Oakland that stresses efficient water use.

This drought has been particularly harsh in three
regions: the Southwest, the Southeast and
northern Minnesota.

Severe dryness across California and Arizona has
spread into other Western states. On the Colorado
River, the water supply for 30 million people in
seven states and Mexico, the Lake Powell and Lake
Mead reservoirs are only half-full and unlikely
to recover for years. In Los Angeles County, on
track for a record dry year with 21% of normal
rain downtown since last summer, fire officials
are threatening to cancel Fourth of July
fireworks if conditions worsen. On Wednesday, Los
Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa urged
residents to voluntarily cut water use 10%, the
city’s first such call since the 1990s.

In Minnesota, which is in its worst drought since
1976, the situation is improving slowly, although
a wildfire last month burned dozens of houses and
115 square miles in the northeastern part of the

The Southeast, unaccustomed to prolonged dry
spells, may be suffering the most. In eight
states from Mississippi to the Carolinas and down
through Florida, lakes are shrinking, crops are
withering, well levels are falling and there are
new limits on water use. “We need 40-50 inches of
rainfall to get out of the drought,” says Carol
Ann Wehle of the South Florida Water Management

Despite a recent storm, water hasn’t flowed in
Florida’s Kissimmee River, which feeds Lake
Okeechobee, in 212 days. The district has imposed
its strictest water-use limits ever in 13
counties, cutting home watering to once a week
and commercial use by 45%.

The drought also has provided an occasional
benefit: Okeechobee’s record low level allowed
crews to clean out decades of muck and debris.

And some stricken areas are recovering. Texas and
Oklahoma, charred by wildfires in the dry winter
of 2005-06, are drought-free.

Even in California, where winter snowpack in the
Sierra Nevada range was only 27% of normal this
year, plentiful runoff from last year’s snows
filled many reservoirs, so shortages are unlikely
this year. But another dry winter would tax

Gleick says water managers are not reacting
forcefully enough to the drought: “The time to
tell people that we’re in the middle of a drought
and to institute strong conservation programs is
today, not a year from now.” The Metropolitan
Water District of Southern California is doing
that. Last month, it began a “Let’s Save” radio

After nearly a decade of drought in parts of the
West, the nation’s fastest-growing region
wrestles with rising water demands and declining

Donald Wilhite of the National Drought Mitigation
Center says the Southwest and Southeast are
“becoming gradually more vulnerable to drought”
because the rising population will need more
water. “We think of water as an unlimited
resource,” he says. “But what happens when you
turn on the tap and it’s not there?”

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