on blaming “drought”

A couple of stories recently caught my eye, in which “drought” is blamed for what is largely an issue of water overconsumption.

The first was a City News story on San Diego water supply. The reporter said this:

California and the Colorado River basin have been in a years-long drought, which has forced reductions in deliveries of water from the Colorado….


All Colorado River water contractors have received their full allotment over the past decade. As I’ve written before, despite the drought, Lake Mead (and therefore the Lower Basin) has received its full allotment of water each year of the drought.

I don’t want to be too hard on the CNS reporter who wrote this. The author was obviously just capturing what’s the conventional wisdom – which is to blame drought, rather than the fact that consumption exceeds supply.

Case study two is an AP story blaming drought for dropping levels in the Ogallala Aquifer:

Lingering drought during 2009 forced farmers to rely more on irrigation wells drilled into the Ogallala Aquifer and drew down the water at the steepest rate in a decade.

When you have to rely on overdrafting your aquifer to cope with the dry side of the natural range of variability, brother, you’ve got a consumption problem.

But it’s always easier to blame “drought.”


  1. Hi John. I take your point, and from a purist’s point, I suppose that you are correct. There are a lot of people who agree that the word drought should never be applied to dry regions. But given the problems with that term, I wonder if it’s fair to criticize other reporters who use the term in generally accepted ways, for which there are good defenses.

    Re: the City News story: While the Lower Basin may have received its Colorado River delivery requirements, massive surpluses to which an over-allocated region had become accustomed disappeared. If this isn’t drought from a water manager’s point of view, I don’t know what is. What do you call a year on the Colorado in which its two main storage reservoirs lose half their capacity and in which an entire region loses what its water managers had fondly imagined would be its “water security.” Drought is the term that most would employ.

    Re: the High Plains. That is not an AP invention. It was a press release from the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District No. 1. http://www.hpwd.com/news/story.asp?qsNewsID=193

    And if last year in Texas wasn’t a drought, then shouldn’t that argument be made not with Associated Press but with the NOAA and the USDA, which had Texas bright red on its drought maps for most of 2009? Could you really look a Texan rancher in the eye who made it through last year’s horrifying hardships and tell them it wasn’t a drought, but “on the dry side of the natural range of variability?”

    I take your points and I love your blog, but I wonder if there isn’t a way at this argument over a new term for drought that doesn’t make regions and people who are suffering feel stupid as well as in the way in places where you seem to be saying they have no reasonable expectation of water?

  2. Emily –

    The problem is that, while “drought” is the word water managers might employ, I think it’s inappropriate because it shifts the burden onto nature, as if the failure is nature’s failure to provide enough water rather than the humans’ inability to live within their means.

    As a writer, I’ve always found it instructive that we don’t really have a word for the opposite of drought. Well, we do technically – “pluvial” – but we never use it. Instead, when we’re on the wet side of normal, as we were on the Colorado during the 1980s and 1990s wet spells, we take it for granted. And when the normal variability swings to the dry side, we call it a drought and blame nature, rather than recognizing our own failure to build resiliency into the system so we can cope.

  3. Maybe they should just quote John Wesley Powell appropriately and blame it on poor planning. I don’t suppose that would help much with the stupid thing, though.

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