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

The article entitled, “Far West Got Drier Last Year, Data Shows” was published by the New York Times on January 15, 2014 on their website. This article deals with WRE from a hydrology perspective, specifically in terms of the occurrence of droughts in the western United States and their increasing level of severity. In 2013, California had its driest year on record despite the fact that for the continental United States as a whole the year was above average in terms of precipitation. Along with California, other western states too are experiencing intense droughts which are threatening their water supplies. A major contributor to this drought is the far below normal snow pack in the West which accounts for one-third of California’s water in particular according to the article. The article continues on to point a finger at climate change as the culprit for the drought conditions based on data collected by the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC). From my perspective, the facts and information provided by the particle are very accurate. Other reliable sources, such as USA Today in a recent article from January 16th go on to further update the harsh reality of the lack of snow in the West, specifically stating that the snow water equivalent is roughly 10-30% of what is normally found in the Sierra Nevadas. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) furthered what was reported in the article in their annual state of the climate report for 2013, stating that an exception to the above average precipitation of 2013 was “California which was persistently drier than normal for most of the year (especially during its wet season)”. Based on critical thinking on this article, I think the most disappointing thing the article left out was the impact of this drought on the people who live in the West and are directly affected by the crisis. This is crucial for the understanding of the general public to understand just how severe the drought is, what the implications of the drought are and on a bigger picture how droughts such as this could become an annual reality due to climate change.

Droughts in California and the Western United States have a profound impact on not only the water supply for this region but also on things such as agriculture and the severity of natural disasters such as wildfires. Water resources engineering is a major factor in global, economic, environmental, and/or societal issues. In the case of this article, societal and economic issues are especially affected by droughts in the West. The drought in the West has put a strain on the water supply which is crucial for society in terms of fresh water. Furthermore, the drought also affects the economy negatively. For example, farming takes a heavy hit due to the droughts and thus incites the need for federal assistance to farmers. In addition, wildfires are more prone to happen and also lead to a need for more federal aid. The increased possibility of natural disasters such as wildfires is further illustrated in a publication by  Westerling et al. (2006). The article points to increased summer temperatures and earlier snow melts in the West as direct contributors to increased frequencies of wildfires. This conclusion demonstrates the problem that wildfires in the West are no longer solely the result of problem land management but climate change.

Comparison of Sierra Nevada snowpack from 2013 to current, source USA Today

Comparison of Sierra Nevada snowpack from 2013 to current, source USA Today

Drought map of Western US (January 17th, source USA Today)

Drought map of Western US (January 17th, source USA Today)

References

Associated Press. Drought parches West; 11 states declared disaster areas. USA Today. http://www.usatoday.com/story/weather/2014/01/16/drought-west-disaster-declarations/4522651/. Published January 16, 2014. Accessed January 20, 2014.

Fountain, H. Far West Got Drier Last Year, Data Shows. New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/16/science/earth/far-west-got-drier-last-year-data-shows.html?ref=science&_r=0. Published January 15, 2014. Accessed January 20, 2014.

NOAA National Climatic Data Center. State of the Climate: Drought for Annual 2013. http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/drought/. Published December 2013. Accessed January 20, 2014.

Westerling A.L., Hidalgo H.G., Cayan D.R., Swetnam T.W. Warming and Earlier Spring Increase Western U.S. Forest Wildfire Activity. Science Magazine. http://ir.library.oregonstate.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/1957/17534/Warming%20and%20earlier%20spring.pdf?sequence=1. Published July 6, 2006. Accessed January 20, 2014.

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