Drought or Deluge: Different Threats, Same Problems

This truly has been a summer of extremes.  Texas had its hottest and driest summer ever recorded, while Northeastern states including New Jersey, New York, Vermont and New Hampshire had their wettest August ever.

Tropical Storm Lee kept the meteorological insults rolling in early September.  While large swaths of dry Texas land burned in wildfires, Lee’s remnants dumped an estimated 29 trillion gallons of water from Louisiana through Upstate New York.  Take a look at the precipitation map illustrating Lee’s heavy rainfall and you can’t help but notice the stark cutoff line between Louisiana (soaked) and neighboring Texas (barely a drop).  What did Texas get from Lee?  Lots of wind, which helped to spread those wildfires even more. It kind of makes you believe in curses.

This stark contrast between floods and droughts is giving us all an ominous preview of how new patterns of extreme precipitation and drought are changing how we live.  Whether it’s the flooded Northeast or drought-stricken Texas, the threats couldn’t be more different, but the problems are remarkably the same:

Farms are devastated.  Power plants shut down.  Water supplies are threatened.

Power

Power plants need lots of water for a variety of purposes, but primarily for cooling.  When water becomes scarce, power plant operators get nervous.  Several Texas power plants that rely on cooling ponds are in a tough spot because their reservoirs aren’t being replenished, and that lack of cooling water means electricity production has to be ramped down exactly when record-breaking heat is causing soaring electricity demand.  Regulators are worried that if the drought continues into next spring – and at least one climatologist says Texas is looking at nine more years of drought –  several power plants would have to shut down.

Floods, on the other hand, don’t make power plant owners any happier.  Before Hurricane Irene walloped New Jersey, the Oyster Creek nuclear plant powered down as a precautionary measure. Afterwards, two more nuclear reactors in the state powered down because debris carried from the storm’s winds and flood-swollen rivers blocked the cooling water intakes.  Other power plants in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, Pennsylvania and North Carolina were either taken offline or operated at reduced capacity both before and after the hurricane hit.

Fossil fuel production can also be dramatically affected by drought and deluge. A long-term drought would have serious consequences for the water-intensive petrochemical industry in Texas, and problems for liquid fuel refineries and plastic manufacturers mean problems for the entire country.

In the Northeast, extreme flooding in the Marcellus Shale region has some big implications for natural gas drilling, also known as fracking.  Environmental groups in Pennsylvania are asking state officials to disclose whether drilling pits overflowed and spilled their toxic contents into local waterways after the recent historic floods, while legislators in New York are requesting that outdated flood maps be updated to account for the possible repercussions of extreme precipitation on natural gas drilling in the state.

Water Supply

As the recent tropical storms unloaded upon the Northeast and flood waters rose dramatically, so too did concerns about water quality.  Sewage treatment plants were inundated and septic systems backed up, causing raw sewage to flow into the rising waters.  Paints, pesticides, motor oil and other toxic substances usually kept in basements and garages swirled in the floodwaters.  Huge volumes of polluted stormwater meant that water supplies could not be taken directly from some rivers and reservoirs.  In short, floods wrestled a lot of nasty chemicals and bacteria from what we thought were safe locations and injected them directly into the waters upon which the region depends.

Droughts have their own unique spin on water quality problems.  When there is lower water flow, there is less dilution of pollutants so water supplies can become increasingly contaminated.  Towns are now confronting dwindling reservoirs in which the quality of the water has plummeted as their pumps reach nearer the bottom.  Meanwhile, many cities are seeing their water infrastructure crumble because of the heat and drought.  Houston in particular is confronting 700 water main breaks per day because dry soil is shrinking away from the aging pipes, leaving space on the outside for the inside pressure to burst through.

Farms

In Texas, industrial-scale agriculture has taken a huge hit.  So far the drought has cost the state a record $5.2 billion in livestock and crop losses.  All of the state’s major crops have bleak outlooks: cotton production is expected to take a nosedive, while production of corn, winter wheat, feed grains and soybeans are all similarly plummeting.  Cattle and sheep ranchers have watched as their grazing fields wither away, and have had to send their herds to slaughter in record numbers.  The shrinking amount of water in what forage grasses remain are also causing livestock to suffer.

Hurricane Irene pummeled east coast crops with wind and submerged them with floods. Tobacco farms were wiped out in Virginia and North Carolina while blueberry bushes were so damaged in New Jersey that future harvests are in jeopardy.  Small farms in the Northeast were devastated just as the fall harvest was arriving.  While many farmers were relieved to find crops that survived the winds and rains, days later they learned that state and federal officials deemed any produce that had been in contact with the contaminated flood waters unfit for human or animal consumption.  Some community farms had just enough time to make calls for help from volunteers to save whatever produce could be harvested before swollen rivers spilled over into the fields.  Others suffered complete losses and may never be able to plant their fields again. (Check out this map for a complete listing of the affected farms, and efforts to support them.)

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The effects of extreme droughts and floods are intensifying for two main reasons.  First, while we can’t point to climate change as the cause of a particular extreme weather event, it is almost certainly the force behind more frequent and more intense extreme weather events.  Second, we're increasingly leaving ourselves exposed to natural disasters.  Thanks to an unrelenting procession of blizzards, droughts, tornadoes, floods and hurricanes, there have been ten natural disasters costing a billion dollars or more so far this year.

So instead of relying on power plants that depend on massive supplies of cooling water, how about renewables that don’t need water at all? (Wind turbines have been keeping Texas air conditioners humming this summer, by the way.)  Instead of clearing forests for industrial-scale farms and watching as the soil is reduced to dust during droughts, why not switch to lower-impact organic agriculture and start looking more seriously into water conservation?

We are running out of time to understand how a changing global climate is changing extreme weather patterns, much less prepare for those changes. Here’s the decision that we all continue to ignore at our own peril: Make significantly greater investments today to help us prepare for the new weather “normals” of tomorrow, or roll the dice and wait for the next storm – or drought – to hit?

Responses to "Drought or Deluge: Different Threats, Same Problems"

  1. Julia Apland Hitz

    Thanks for a great overview of the issues related to drought and flood events. They will potentially have some of the biggest impacts on people’s lives as climate patterns shift. At Columbia Water Center we are undertaking to predict extreme flood events around the world, so that local people, governments and aid agencies can prepare, minimizing damage and loss of life. http://water.columbia.edu/?id=Global-Flood

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