Water Resources Engineering (WRE) connects engineering hydrology and hydraulics with
global, economic, environmental, and societal issues. Our student, Pat Acee, makes this
connection here…

The article entitled, Storms on U.S. Plains Stir Memories of the ‘Dust Bowl’ was written by journalist Kevin Murphy, and reported via reuters.com on December 30, 2012. This piece of WRE news resides primarily in the domain of hydrology, with the principle issues being that of water distribution in light of water scarcity and aquifer depletion. The story compares and contrasts the current drought in the U.S. Great Plains to that of the 1930’s ‘Dust Bowl’. The author claims that the recent dust storms in the region “have been brought on by historic drought, a dwindling Ogallala Aquifer underground water supply, climate change and government farm programs.” The status of the Ogallala aquifer, in particular, sets this crisis apart from past crises, as the once enormous underground water supply has been receding at an alarming rate. The author refers to atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University, who suggests that the severity of the drought has been exacerbated by climate change as well. Lack of water in the region, and changes in government farm subsidies have caused many farmers to consider altering their crop types or leaving the business altogether. My prior knowledge in the field of WRE leads me to believe that the article is generally credible. Aquifer depletion is known to be an issue in many areas. The USGS (2013) confirms that aquifer depletion is an ongoing problem in the United States, stating that the water level in the Ogallala aquifer itself has been lowered by more than 100 ft in some areas, leading to increased costs to water users and deterioration of water quality. While many scientists debate the causes of climate change, it is generally accepted that the climate is in fact warming and weather patterns are changing. A conglomerate of scientists from the state of Iowa reported in 2012’s Iowa Climate Report, that the current U.S. drought is consistent with those predicted by a warming global climate, and that the Iowa economy is already feeling the detrimental effects of such droughts (Takle, 2012). Unfortunately, while the article outlines the problematic features of the drought, it lacks any mention of potential solutions to these problems. The article also lacks any sort of economic analysis comparing the 1930’s drought to today’s drought in time adjusted U.S. dollars, which would make the comparison considerably more thorough.

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Figure 1: Map of U.S. drought severity as of July 31, 2012. Water resource engineers may monitor drought conditions to mitigate negative impacts. Retrieved from: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2012/08/03/1116191/-Midwest-and-Great-Plains-Drought-Update-8-2-12 on 1/20/2013.

The hydrologic issue of water scarcity addressed in this article is directly related to the broader contexts of economics and the society. Economics generally refers to the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services, while societal issues are generally concerned with relations between people within a culture. The current drought in the U.S. Great Plains is an example of how water availability can sometimes negatively affect local, national, and global economies. Water scarcity can lead to reduced crop and livestock production, causing a rise in food prices for staples such as corn and beef, resulting in an economic ripple effect that can affect consumers over wide reaching area. Armah et. al. (2009) cited drought, brought on by climate change, as one of the main causes of rising food prices worldwide. Socially, the availability of water can have significant ramifications. In some instances, community members may be required to work together to conserve water, in other instances water rights may become a source of conflict between individuals or neighboring communities. As water resource engineers we may be called upon to develop systems to best conserve water resources during times of droughts, thereby limiting negative economic and social impacts.

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Figure 2: Drought impacts crop yield in crops such as corn, resulting in inflated food prices. Better aquifer management may reduce negative impacts of drought. Retrieved from: http://blog.ucsusa.org/coping-with-drought-how-to-build-a-more-resilient-agricultural-system/ on 1/20/2013.

References:
Armah, P., Archer, A., & Phillips, G. C. (2009). Drivers leading to higher food prices: Biofuels are not the main factor. Vitro Cellular & Developmental Biology. Plant, 45(3), 330-341.
Takle, G. (2012). Iowa climate statement: The drought of 2012. Retrieved from: http://www.cgrer.uiowa.edu/images/main_slideshow/ICS_drought2012FINAL.pdf
USGS (2013, Jan 10). Groundwater depletion. Retrieved from: http://ga.water.usgs.gov/edu/gwdepletion.html.

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