Where’s the Water?
Drought in America’s southern states impacts all
The drought in states like Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, Arkansas and Georgia did not change the water supply in the state of Washington or California, but its effects were clearly visible to me as an entry-level stock worker for Eddie Bauer this summer. Processing hundreds of articles of clothing a day was mind-numbing, but one afternoon I noticed a minute change in the process: each individual plastic bag the clothes came in had been ripped at the side. I wondered whether these goods were damaged, but quickly realized every article of clothing Eddie Bauer sold had been re-priced and re-tagged to account for a dramatic jump in the price of cotton.
The global market for cotton experienced a sharp drop in supply this spring; prices in March of 2011 had increased by 80 percent from the price level of the year before. For the last ten years, the price of cotton has hovered between $0.75 and $1.00 per pound. It’s currently at $2.25. Many things contribute to global commodity prices, but it is likely that increased floods and rain in China and India coupled with severe drought in America’s cotton belt decreased cotton supply, thus raising the price.
High cotton prices are only part of the terrible consequences resulting from this drought in the South. Approximately 12 percent of the nation – the largest area on record – is suffering from “exceptional drought,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The states experiencing the worst drought are Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Georgia. Michael Brewer of the National Climatic Data Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration stated, “In Texas, this year has been characterized as the worst one-year drought on record by the State Climatologist. Recent estimates of the statewide agricultural impact from drought and wildfires is now at $5.4 billion.” Wildfires ravished New Mexico and Arizona this summer due to severe lack of rain – Arizona suffered its worst fire ever – while reservoirs dried up and shrunk to new lows.
In Texas, farmers have abandoned over two million acres of farmland. More than half the rivers and streams in Texas are flowing below normal levels and several reservoirs have dried up. Where aquatic ecosystems used to exist, blood-red bacteria now flourish. Texas set the all-time hottest average temperature in the summer for any state in U.S. history at 86.8 degrees Fahrenheit.
These record-breaking temperatures and droughts are not only detrimental to the local environment, but also to the national economy. The state of Texas alone could suffer $8 billion dollars in direct economic losses, twice the amount lost during the 2006 drought. All of these losses mean one thing: higher food prices in the United States.
Unfortunately, La Niña, the weather pattern caused from the upwelling of cold water in the Pacific Ocean which typically causes dry years in the Americas, looks to keep the rains at bay throughout the fall, exacerbating the drought. The future of the South in the face of unmitigated climate change yields little hope. The short-term plan of action is to reduce water waste and install strict water conservation policies so people can function off the low water supplies. In the long run, efforts to reduce carbon emissions and promote sustainability can help mitigate the effects of a warming planet.
In Claremont, water conservation and reclamation could save water waste and costs. Dustin Zubke HMC ’13 spent this summer researching Claremont’s water usage and found that the colleges use an average of 780,000 gallons per day. Of that, 55 percent is used for irrigation and the rest is for domestic use. Zubke found that a water reclamation system on the 5C campus could save anywhere from $2 million to $24.9 million depending on the water prices over the next 20 years. Los Angeles is looking into reclamation and conservation programs to reduce imported water from the threatened San Joaquin-Sacramento delta from 45 percent to 25 percent. Claremont would do well to follow Los Angeles’ lead on water conservation.
In this age of severe storms and prolonged droughts, climate change is no longer an abstract phenomenon – it is happening now and its effects are visible everywhere. Climate change is not just an inconvenient truth. It’s an inconvenient reality.