Drought risk should be considered at all times

Despite the moist air mass that’s been in place all week, the Triangle really hasn’t had that much rain. Today’s updated United States Drought Monitor map shows good bit of central North Carolina is still abnormally dry. The story is much different for the western side of our state. The mountains have seen a greater amount of rain and are no longer experiencing dry conditions. If the trend continues, next week could see the rest of N.C. removed from the drought map.

USDM map

The United States Drought Monitor map for the week of February 15, 2018, shows improvement across North Carolina over the previous week’s map.

North Carolina’s story is very different from places like California and Cape Town, South Africa, which was in the news recently for having run out of water. Those locations have a stronger tendency toward long periods of dry conditions. Both regions should be in a constant state of conservation – even during wetter periods – in order to be prepared for times of extended drought. It’s up to their populations and their elected leaders to make plans and decisions to mitigate their risk for extreme periods of little to no rainfall.

While N.C. does not often suffer long-term drought conditions, it does happen. The years 1998-2002 brought extended drought across the state. During the peak of that episode, nearly 250 municipalities and communities “had implemented voluntary, mandatory, or emergency conservation procedures.” (See page 63 of this report by the United States Geological Survey.)

Drought can be difficult to predict, but there are certain situations that can lead to long, dry spells. The effects of El Nino/La Nina in certain regions can trigger drought. Persistent high pressure over an area that typically has a more active weather pattern can limit rainfall to unusually low amounts. Around here, summer is a drier season for us, and if you add persistent high pressure to the mix, our area easily slips into the abnormally dry category, or worse.

When I read news articles about towns running out of water, I often wonder if the situation was avoidable. Is it possible that by practicing water conservation at all times, people could avoid those dire situations, or at least mitigate the risk? For the most part, I think it is possible, but the difficulty lies in getting people to change their behavior without the immediate threat of dreadful consequences.

There are ways to conserve water voluntarily that shouldn’t cramp our style too much. The use of rain barrels for home gardening and lawn watering is one example. By harvesting the rain that falls – when it does fall – for use outside, we can put less strain on community water resources and our own wallets. Along the same lines, making sure that outdoor plants are appropriate for our climate and drought resistant also reduces the need for water usage.

Inside, small changes can make a big difference over the course of a year. For example, don’t let the water run while you’re brushing your teeth; turn it off while the toothbrush is in your mouth. Only run the washer and dishwasher when you have full loads. Repair toilets that run when they shouldn’t. Fix drippy faucets. These things really should be common sense, but it is amazing how easily people get lax about them when we are not in a drought.

Changes can be made on the community level, too. Publicly-owned property can benefit from rain barrels and water cisterns for landscaping as much as a small house can. Restroom sinks with automatic off/on sensors are another good tool. By implementing conservation efforts in a public way, governments can lead by example.

I’ll admit there will always be people who wait until conservation is mandatory before changing their habits. Those people will probably revert to their old ways when the mandate is lifted, too. Not everyone is a team player. But if the rest of us greatly outnumber them, I think we can make a difference in the long run, and maybe we won’t get to the point where conservation efforts need to be mandated in case of emergency because we will avoid the emergency altogether.