It is abnormally dry in our part of Iowa. Just as we are needing rain, we are not getting it. A home gardener can irrigate new trees, fruits and vegetables, but the massive scale required to hydrate Iowa’s main commodity crops and livestock is not available. Creating the infrastructure to pump water from ancient aquifers is doable, yet an unsustainable practice. It seems like we are heading into a drought. (The map is from the state climatology website which provides data about precipitation, temperature and other aspects of the climate).
Iowans are familiar with drought. In the 2012 drought corn yield per harvested acre was 123.1 bushels compared to the average of the seven following years at 170.4 bushels. The drought decreased corn production by 27.8 percent according to USDA numbers.
There is a relatively finite amount of water on Earth which cycles through the atmosphere, on land, and in the oceans. Some of it rests in deep underground aquifers where it has been since prehistoric times. An increasingly warm climate impacts how water cycles and it is getting hotter. “Earth’s global average surface temperature in 2020 tied with 2016 as the warmest year on record,” according to an analysis by NASA. The oceans are getting warmer too.
Rising air and water temperatures and changes in precipitation are intensifying droughts, increasing heavy downpours, reducing snowpack, and causing declines in surface water quality, with varying impacts across regions. Future warming will add to the stress on water supplies and adversely impact the availability of water in parts of the United States.Fourth National Climate Assessment.
The problem goes beyond Iowa. The Hoover Dam, located on the Colorado River near the Nevada-Arizona border, is suffering the consequences of drought. Lake Mead, the artificial lake created by the dam, is at a lower water level than was when it was built. The water shortage will impact 25 million people including in the cities of Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson and Las Vegas.
Farmers are abandoning crops, Nevada is banning the watering of about one-third of the lawn in the Las Vegas area, and the governor of Utah is literally asking people to pray for rain.
Firefighters are facing worsening conditions this summer — after nearly 10,000 fires in California alone during the last wildfire season burned 4.2 million acres (1.7 million hectares), an area nearly as large as Kuwait.Reuters, June 10, 2021
Water in California’s Lake Oroville will fall so low this summer that its hydroelectric power plant may be forced to shut down for the first time.
We must do something more than pray for rain. It begins with recognition.
The Lakota phrase “Mní wičhóni” (“Water is life”) was the protest anthem from Standing Rock heard around the world, but it also has a spiritual meaning rooted in Indigenous world views. For Native Americans, water does not only sustain life, it is sacred.Bioneers.org
Action to prevent drought must include acknowledging that climate change is real, something Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst have both done. The next step is addressing the climate crisis through policy and legislation and that’s been the rub. The climate crisis is more complicated than any single policy or law.
Peter Rolnick of Citizen’s Climate Lobby wrote a guest opinion in the Cedar Rapids Gazette on June 15, 2021. He commended the Iowa senators and Rep. Cindy Axne for supporting the bipartisan Growing Climate Solutions Act. If passed, the law would engage farmers in storing more carbon in our soil instead of emitting it into the air in the form of carbon dioxide or methane. The relationship to drought is clear. A molecule of CO2 or methane sequestered in the ground is one that does not get into the atmosphere and increase warming. Even the American Farm Bureau is in favor of this bill, which on its own raises red flags. One bill is not enough.
We need much more in the way of policy and legislation. The Biden administration’s approach of embedding work on climate change in each of the executive branch departments is important. It is up to each of us to encourage those in government to work toward viable climate solutions. There are personal actions we can take to reduce our carbon footprint, yet the most effective action is in the government arena. If constituents don’t remind members of our governing bodies to act on the climate crisis, they seem likely to forget.
We’ll know it when we hit the drought this year. News media has been forthright in reporting it because so many Iowa livelihoods depend upon the weather. When will we wake up to take action to address what is causing the drought? Not soon enough.