Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

Yankee Ingenuity

Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

Yankee Ingenuity

Article excerpt

In the United States, drought is a familiar visitor, though in the past five years some might say it has worn out its welcome. Until recently, the federal government treated drought like other natural disasters, such as tornadoes and earthquakes, with emergency response and relief. Recent droughts, from the West to the Southeast, however, have revealed the inadequacies of such short-term, reactive responses.

State organizations, scientific panels, and federal agencies have begun to consider integrated risk-management approaches, says Donald Wilhite of the National Drought Mitigation Center. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been designated the lead federal agency for drought, and Congress has created a National Drought Policy Commission. Wilhite says that if we experience a few wet years, however, support for the new paradigm may evaporate. "It is critical for the scientific community and the public to hold policymakers to this commitment," he says.

Although we live on the most water-rich planet in the universe, most of the water is either too salty, or too dirty, for human use. The solution is to imitate nature's miraculous hydrological cycle by developing new technologies to refine and deliver purified and desalinized water, says Ronald Linsky with the National Water Research Institute. In Orange County, California, for instance, microfiltration techniques and disinfection with ultraviolet light can turn wastewater from a sewage treatment plant into drinking water.

Yet spot shortages of freshwater are a recurrent fact of life. In the western United States, where 35 percent of the water consumed comes from groundwater, farmers have historically had the right of prior appropriation of groundwater--that is, first come, first served--with the caveat, use it or lose it. Today, much of the available groundwater is pumped for irrigated agriculture, a practice that is often wasteful. …

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