Researchers conclude that drought in Southeast USA is actually mild compared to historical shortages


WE Editor's Blog

By Elizabeth Cutright, Editor of Water Efficiency Magazine

Last year, in my editorial entitled “The Perfect Storm”, I discussed the Southeast’s “killer” drought and the role water waste played in the current supply crisis in Georgia and its neighbors. Specifically, I postulated “while water shortages like those faced in Georgia are the result of a variety of factors, water inefficiency can be placed squarely near the top of the list.” In fact, a report by World Water Vision had made the same point, “There is a water crisis today, but the crisis is not about having too little water to satisfy our needs,” it states. “It is a crisis of managing water so badly that billions of people—and the environment—suffer.” Now a study by Columbia University has come to the same conclusion.  

Last month, researchers from the university’s Lamont-Doherty Earty Observatory concluded that the current Southeast drought is actually mild, compared to other historical shortages, and that, in fact, the severity of the current drought has less to do with climate change and more to do with population growth and ineffective infrastructure planning. Researchers compared instrumental weather records from the last century with tree-growth ring studies and discovered that over the last 500 years the region has seen droughts that are more severe, longer lasting, and with even more severe consequences. Of particular historic note: A series of droughts from the late 1500s through the 1600s has been linked (in other studies) with the destruction of several Spanish and English new world colonies—including Jamestown, VA. In comparison, the Southeast of the 20th century has benefited from abundant precipitation, and even the current dry spell is nothing compared to the periods between 1998–2002.  

In fact, the real issue is not so much diminished supply as inefficiency. By not accounting for its rising population (an increase of almost 50% over the last 17 years and still rising) or working to reduce user demand, the state is now stuck: Increasing usage, increasing waste, and a collection and storage system are in desperate need of overhauls and upgrades. And the news only gets worse for the region—explaining that climate change has yet to really impact precipitation patterns, the report’s authors warn that when the effects really kick in, the state’s water woes are likely to get worse.  

So what do think? Are the results of this study predictable, or should they serve as a wake-up call? By focusing on the climate change bogeyman, have we gone too far afield? And, won’t dealing with the current state of our supply and infrastructure put us in a better position to battle whatever future plans Mother Nature may have in store for us?



Water Efficiency is the Journal for Water Conservation Professionals


Posted November 2009