A Current Example of The Value of the Vulnerability Paridigm – Water Resources in the Western United States

There was an accurate and well written media report in the NY Times on March 21 2006 by Kirk Johnson on the current water resource conditions in the western United States.

Entitled “More Western Drought, but With a Twist”, this news article illustrates the complexity of this issue as it relates to both weather conditions over the last several years, as well as the demand for use of this water. It also provides an example of why society is more vulnerable today to drought than if the same weather patterns had occurred, but with the societal conditions of early times. We found this to be true with the 2002 western USA drought as it affected Colorado (see), where the impacts of the 2002 drought far exceeded what were expected prior to that drought. It also provides examples of ways local and state governments, and the public are working to adapt to drought conditions and to ameliorate their consequences.

Excerpts from the news article are,

“Spring is here, and the West is dry and ready to burn. Winter is over, and the West is snowpacked and facing flood.

Meteorologists say both are true. What it adds up to, when the extremes of wet and dry are averaged out, is that the long Western drought, which began in the late 1990’s, is still on but without some of its past punch……

The Arkansas River is a case study in the region’s bipolar condition. It drains the Colorado Rockies south and east toward Kansas and is socked with snow at its headwaters around the town of Leadville, where the snowpack is nearly 140 percent of average for mid-March. Just a few hours south on the river, however, are places that have not had significant precipitation since October and are setting records for drought….

In some ways, experts say, the climatic situation is less dire than in past drought years. Experience itself has helped, with states and cities across the West adopting conservation policies, new monitoring systems and information-sharing operations that allow faster responses and better planning….

But scientists and government officials say the roller-coaster pattern has also underscored the fact that an uncertainty of water supply is becoming engrained in planning and Western life.

‘When two out of three, or three out of four years are bad, the issue that’s being driven home is how much competition there is for water in the West,’ said Michael J. Hayes, a climate impacts specialist at the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Dr. Hayes said that in the ever more urbanized West, rolling water shortages highlighted all the tensions of land use and development, in issues like wildfires, endangered species protection and the conflict between recreation and agriculture in places where a reservoir can be important for tourism and equally crucial to farmers.

Those off-and-on shortages can be downright dispiriting, too. “In the Southwest, everybody was so excited about last year,” Dr. Hayes said, referring to the wet winter of 2004-5. ‘But the cautious among them were saying it could be a blip, and now we’ve gone back to the dryness, so the enthusiasm is gone.'”

Congratulations to the New York Times for a well written article on this important issue.

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Filed under Climate Science Reporting, Vulnerability Paradigm

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