Dry spell: Covering worsening droughts

Dry spell: Covering worsening droughts

In the news

A months-long drought has hit the northeastern United States, and while it’s not as dire as the West Coast’s five-year dry spell, it has stressed farms, prompted water restrictions and threatened more wildfires. It stretches from Maine to Pennsylvania and has hit Massachusetts particularly hard, as well as New Hampshire, Maine and New York.

Back story

U.S. drought has worsened in recent decades, and is affecting much of the country. As of early August, drought is affecting 17.7 percent of the U.S., and more than 100 million people. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, large portions of the Southwest have experienced the most persistent droughts on record in the last decade. Globally, since the 1950s, regions like southern Europe and West Africa have also experienced longer and more intense droughts.

Adaptation angle

Projections see worsening drought ahead, requiring government, businesses and individuals to adjust water consumption, and to prepare for impacts of drought on food and water supplies, human health, energy production, transportation, migration and a slew of other policy areas.

The United Nations expects more drought in the coming decades not just in southern Europe and the Mediterranean, but also in central Europe, central North America, northeast Brazil, southern Africa, Mexico and Central America. In the U.S., Climate Central projects 36 states will see an increase in drought threat by 2050, with many states facing severe, widespread drought causing major economic and environmental impacts. By 2050, it says nine states — Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Texas, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Washington — are projected to face a greater summer drought threat than the most at-risk state, Texas, does today.

Questions to ask

  • Is your community in a state or region that has experienced or is expected to see worsening drought? If so, what, if any, response plans are in place from policymakers?
  • What state and local agencies have authority over water usage?
  • Are water-use restrictions currently in place? Are they mandatory or voluntary? If mandatory, are they being enforced?
  • What kind of water efficiencies might be possible in your area, such as shorter pipe networks?
  • What kind of land-use policies, such as more compact communities, might improve drought resilience in your community?
  • What drought-resistant lawns or landscaping techniques can residents use?
  • What might be the infrastructure impact of drought in your area? Are soils shrinking, damaging pavements? Are buildings in your area experiencing drought-related foundation cracking? Is there damage to underground pipelines?
  • What is your area’s primary water supply and what is the impact of drought? Are reservoir levels dropping or streams drying up? Is drinking water quality being affected?
  • Could low river flows cause salt-water intrusion in your area? Or foster subsidence in soils as groundwater supplies are used up?
  • What kind of public health considerations does drought bring to your community, whether with food preparation, sanitation, recreation or water quality?
  • Is the balance of the water supply going to agriculture or populated areas? Should water resources be diverted from one to the other?
  • For agricultural areas, what are the impacts of drought, ranging from slower plant growth to crop losses?
  • Are agricultural firms or scientific organizations in your area researching drought-resistant crops?
  • Is drying vegetation elevating the risk of wildfire in your area? Is drought weakening forests and making them vulnerable to infestations?
  • What are the ecosystem impacts of drought in your area? Disease among wildlife? Loss of wetlands? Soil erosion or desertification?

Reporting resources

Dig deeper on the drought story using the dozens of related resources in the Reporter’s Guide to Climate Adaptation database.

Know of other drought-related resources we should have in our database?


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