Is Iowa Prepared for a Megadrought?

State Senator Joe Bolkcom (D-Iowa City)

State Senator Joe Bolkcom (D-Iowa City)

State Senator Joe Bolkcom, member of the natural resources and environment committee, spoke last Tuesday at the capitol about environmental issues.

“Is there anything related to the environment you would like to see covered in greater detail?” I asked.

“There are some questions around megadroughts coming mid-century,” he said. “Have we dedicated enough attention and resources to protecting underground water systems?”

Bolkcom pointed to a number of concerns: recent defunding of the Department of Natural Resources underground water monitoring system; gaining an understanding of the water withdrawal rate for ethanol plant operations; a needed review of policy by the  Environmental Protection Commission; a review of DNR regulations pertaining to water permitting; the need for a geological survey of water resources, the Silurian and Jordan aquifers specifically; and the impact of water usage by data centers such as Google and Facebook. He had given the matter considerable thought.

“Should we have other thoughts about the Jordan and Silurian aquifers as we head toward 2050?” Bolkcom asked. “Today, once an industrial user secures a permit, they can withdraw as much water as they want.”

There were more questions than answers during my brief time with Bolkcom, but his thrust was that Iowa needs to do more to ensure resiliency during extended drought conditions.

It is difficult to forget the severe drought of 2012. Governor Branstad called a special meeting of agriculture groups in Mount Pleasant that July. (Read my coverage of that meeting here.) Climate change was completely absent from the discussion, even if farmers had to deal with its enhancement of drought conditions. To paraphrase the reaction, farmers planned to plow the crop under, capitalize the loss, and plant again the following year.

What if the drought extended more than a season or two? What if it lasted for decades? According to a study released this month that’s what we can expect.

“Droughts in the U.S. Southwest and Central Plains during the last half of this century could be drier and longer than drought conditions seen in those regions in the last 1,000 years,” according to a Feb. 12 press release issued in conjunction with a new study led by NASA scientists.

“Natural droughts like the 1930s Dust Bowl and the current drought in the Southwest have historically lasted maybe a decade or a little less,” said Ben Cook, climate scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University in New York City, and lead author of the study. “What these results are saying is we’re going to get a drought similar to those events, but it is probably going to last at least 30 to 35 years.”

When Bolkcom referred to megadroughts, this is what he meant.

The potential exists for megadroughts more severe than any in recent history, according to the study published in Science Advances by Cook, Toby R. Ault and Jason E. Smerdon.

“Future drought risk will likely exceed even the driest centuries of the Medieval Climate Anomaly (1100–1300 CE),” the authors wrote. “The consistency of our results suggests an exceptionally high risk of a multidecadal megadrought occurring over the Central Plains and Southwest regions during the late 21st century, a level of aridity exceeding even the persistent megadroughts that characterized the Medieval era.”

Whether Bolkcom’s questions find answers is uncertain, however he is alone among legislators I spoke with in asking them. He was correct that members of the public haven’t engaged on something the legislature should be taking up during its 86th General Assembly.

~ Written for Blog for Iowa

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