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Drought: the Long, Slow Natural Hazard (Part 2)

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In the second part of our two-part drought mini-series, we head down South to talk with USGS scientists Curtis Weaver and Brian McCallum about the drought situation in the Southeastern United States. We also learn some eye-opening economic implications of drought. (Did you know that it's possibly the most expensive natural hazard to address?)




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Dave Hebert

Hello and welcome to the USGS CoreCast. I'm Dave Hebert, and you are listening part 2 of our two-part series on drought. Yesterday, in episode 33, we talked about the drought situation in the Western U.S. Make sure you listened to episode 33 if you haven't yet. There's some fantastic info in there; really compelling stuff, and we're going to get more of the same today.

Today, however, we're going to get up the speed on what's going on with drought in the Southeast. So, I'm talking with Curtis Weaver, a hydrologist at the USGS North Carolina Water Science Center and Brian McCallum, Assistant Director of the Georgia Water Science Center. Gentlemen, thank you very much for joining me today.

Curtis Weaver

You're welcome.

Brian McCallum

Thank you.


So what parts of the Southeastern United States in particular are in pretty dire drought conditions right now?


This is Brian. Currently, the upper northwest corner of Georgia, parts of Tennessee, the Savannah River basin, which is the border between Georgia and South Carolina: Those are all in pretty severe drought conditions currently.

However, earlier in 2007, there was a much more widespread effect of drought conditions throughout pretty much the northern third of Georgia into Tennessee and almost the entire state of Alabama. Thankfully, over this wet season that we've had, we've gotten enough rains to at least temporarily bring the region out of the exceptional drought, which they were calling it, and now we're for the most part in what they call severe drought.


And this Curtis. And it's similar in North Carolina. In the latter part of 2007 a large area of the state was in that exceptional drought category as defined by the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Just as of today, we have lifted that D4—that exceptional drought classification—that's been across central North Carolina . . . had some substantial rainfall last week in the Piedmont area . . . all across the State, but certainly in the Piedmont area, where rainfall was very much needed. Falls Lake, primary water supply for the city of Raleigh, came up 5 feet . . . has come up 5 feet in the past week.

And so, again, we are at least seeing some indication that there's a little bit of recovery maybe trying to take place, but we're still a long way. Most of our State is still in the severe and extreme drought category.


Okay. Thank you. And just for our listeners out there, when Curtis says that that drought status was lifted today: Today is March 13th 2007, just so you know. So what is the long term outlook for those locations that you both just discussed?


Well, the Weather Service and the folks at NOAA are still forecasting a strong La Niña effect going into the summer months. And so that one is what the big concern still is even though we have recovered somewhat. They expect that the short term showers and thunderstorms that are coming through now will end, and the dry weather will return, and then you couple that with the warmer temperatures and higher evaporation that occurs—there's still very much concern about the outlook through the summer.


And similarly in North Carolina, they're still anticipating the effects of La Niña and . . . causing below normal rainfall through the spring and over the summer. But here in North Carolina beyond that, the outlook that as I'm understanding is, that there have been . . .  that there's some confusion exactly what the guidance is.

The guidance is very difficult to determine as to what it's going to be, say four, five, or six months out. It's also . . . this is, that will be the time of the year where perhaps we might get some tropical activity, and last year we had only one tropical event that affected North Carolina—thankfully, in terms of wind, potential wind damage, but we certainly, here in North Carolina, depend on those tropical events as part of our rainfall totals during the year.

Some of the previous historical droughts have been maybe not erased, but certainly ameliorated somewhat by big rainfall events like the tropics can bring. So there's still a lot of uncertainty out. It's very difficult to, particularly in the summer time, to get a good hand along the outlook. (Dave: Sure.)


And that tropical effect is pretty much prevalent across the entire Southeast, including Georgia. We can have severe storm in  . . . the typical rainy season is in the spring, but like Curtis said, the tropics and the hurricane season can, can bring very intense rainfalls storms that . . . Well, for example it got us out of the 2002 drought that Georgia was in, and they just didn't happen last year.


Right. Do we know how wet of a year 2007 was, historically, in the Southeast?


In North Carolina, it was the driest on record as a statewide average, for 2007, in 113 years of record. (Dave: Oh, okay.)

And it was also the sixth warmest year in terms of temperature. We had a very hot latter part of the summer particularly, when temperatures were exceeding 100 degrees for consecutive days. 2007 was very dry and very warm on record for North Carolina.


Okay, thank you. And that sixth hottest is also within that 113-year period?


That's correct.


Okay. Thank you.


And David, in Atlanta, if it wasn't for the rainfall that occurred in December, it would have been the driest year on record (Dave: Oh, wow.) for metro Atlanta.


Okay. What are some of the places that we're seeing some really positive signs of recovery?


Well, in Georgia, the southern half of the State has gotten an exceptional amount of rainfall, actually, in the past several months. In fact, we've had to make some flood measurements in extreme south parts of Georgia. So it can vary widely just in one State alone.

I think I said the panhandle of Florida before—it's the southern part of Florida that is in drought. As far as what's making recovery, the southern half of Georgia is actually in fairly good shape. We've had to make, in fact, flood measurements in some locations in South Georgia. (Dave: Okay.)


And in North Carolina, in the Blue Ridge, the Southern Blue Ridge particularly, have seen some rainfall that have helped to raise streams and ground water. And also in the coastal plain, we've had some rainfall occurrences there that have sort of taken the edge off the drought conditions. Again, not completely bringing it out to the degree of being able to say "no drought," but certainly have helped ameliorate.


Thank you. So what is the USGS doing to address these drought situations in the Southeastern United States?


Well, one of the biggest things we do is monitor the rainfall and stream flow in the various rivers and streams across all of the States in the Southeast. In Georgia, we have over 250 stream flow locations that automatically transmit via satellite on an hourly basis, reporting stream flow and precipitation data. And the forecasters and policy makers uses information pretty much on a daily basis to make their decisions in an informed manner.


In North Carolina, our office, the USGS Water Science Center in North Carolina, is also part of the North Carolina Drought Management Advisory Council. And that's sort of a big term for a group of agencies that currently gather and work together to sort of keep tabs on the drought, to also to help provide support to communities that may need some assistance.

And our role in that council is to describe the stream flow conditions; to help describe some of the ground water conditions. We likewise have a very wide network of streamgages across North Carolina. I think one of the biggest accomplishments that has occurred in the USGS, particularly in the past decade, to help us do that is the WaterWatch pages. They allow us to be able to make quick assessments of conditions across the region.

That is something that is now a part of the development of the Drought Monitor each week. That monitor is based on multiple indicators, including stream flow, and they look at the Water pages. So all that together is how we in the USGS are helping to address drought—to try to at least provide some information about what's going on.


On a more daily basis, our technicians are out in the field making stream flow measurements to verify the accuracy of the low end of our rating so that we are ensuring that the data we are providing on the realtime Web site is as accurate as possible.

A lot of times we have to go out and adjust or even, add instrumentation to our gages to allow us to measure at this extremely low condition. I know we've had to retrofit a number of our stream gauges so that they can measure water this low.



Wow—so the conditions are actually affecting the way you . . . the way you do your work?


Exactly. (Dave: Wow.) Exactly. And because everyone—and I mean literally everyone—is scrutinizing the data, trying to find every last drop, we get data requests and questions on a daily basis asking about various streamgage data: whether or not, you know, can they believe the data and things like that. And you know, most time it is accurate. Sometimes we do have malfunctions but we go out and we have to immediately address those because everyone is looking at these data. (Dave: Right.)


Yes, in North Carolina last year, similarly, we had streams that dropped so low that the instrumentation that senses the water level actually came out of the water, so to speak.

And so our field office used for having to basically scramble and get out of these sites and lower these sensors so that they would be underneath the water or within the water.

It does create those kinds of challenges. 

I've heard this, and I'm . . . before from someone else, and I'm in agreement: I do believe that our data is scrutinized much more closely during a drought than during, say, a flood. That may be subject to some debate but it creates a pressure to really have to stay on top of things (Dave: Right.) because it's a day in, day out.

Flood comes and goes and it's gone in a matter of, you know, maybe a couple of days, maybe a week or so, but the drought doesn't go away. It just stays and stays and stays. (Dave: Right.)


Well, I agree with what Curtis said as far as the impact of a drought: They are not only long lasting but usually widespread, affect a lot more people, and have a much larger economic impact per event than a flood does in most cases.

For example, Lake Lanier, which is the main water supply for metro Atlanta . . . It is a $5-billion industry annually. And that industry has basically been shut down because of the lack of water in Lake Lanier. (Dave: Wow.)

Currently, the lake is roughly 15 feet under the normal pool, and it is the lowest it has ever been at this time of the year since the dam was built. So people are extremely jittery about what the summer holds, and a lot of livelihoods are depending upon the rains that would come this spring.


Oh sure. And, and what you are about saying here leads me to another thought: You can look at drought as a long, slow, natural hazard . . .


Most definitely. And like you said, the drought kind of sneaks up on you, too. (Dave: Right.) You don't know you're in it until it's too late. It is, I think, much more of an economic impact than floods. Floods are generally fairly isolated as far as the effect, and the widespread effect of a drought here in Georgia has really hurt the economy.


And I will say that I have seen numbers from FEMA . . . and although I can't quite remember the numbers in, off the top of my head, but droughts do indeed cost much, much more than floods and other storms. Drought is the costliest event, and part of that is it does affect the productivity; it does eat into the economic well being of a region. Factories and industries all of a sudden are told by a community, "You've got to conserve water," so they have to spend money to figure out how to do that, to maybe even make modifications to put in water conservation measures.

Those kinds of costs sometimes kind of get lost, and it's hard to really know just how very high these droughts cost. So what Brian is saying is definitely correct, that droughts are really the most costly natural hazard that we can have.


Right. Makes sense. Is there anything else that either of you think the public, particularly in the Southeastern United States, needs to know about drought?


One thing that we have not talked about yet is the ongoing water negotiations, or what they commonly refer to as the water wars, between the States of Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. These ongoing negotiations have been in place since the late 80s, early 90s, and have been very tense, and these droughts have only made the negotiations more controversial.

In fact, the congressional compact that was formed and failed to reach a negotiation agreement back, I believe, in 2003 . . . Since then, the governors have been doing private negotiations, trying to reach a settlement, and here in just the past month, they have failed to meet the deadline, and now the Secretary of Interior will have to step in and try to come up with an allocation formula between these States.


In North Carolina, and I guess throughout much of the Eastern U.S. Seaboard, we historically, in decades past, never really had to be concerned about water shortages, even during drought because one of the things that is certainly changing across all of the Southeast, but in North Carolina, is the population.

The population is, between 2000 and 2030 . . . it is expected to increase by 50 percent, and so the water supply issue has become a hot topic, particularly in the past two droughts: the drought that ended in 2002 and then this current drought. And we said at the beginning of our conversation that drought had to do with the fact that the precipitation is disrupted; that it becomes below normal, but so what?

I mean, if it doesn't have an impact, who cares about a drought? The drought has to do with that it is causing some other effect that's . . . that either is costing us either in terms of we have to put more effort to conserve water or we can't use water—there's an impact. Otherwise, it's just a dry spell.

And so as . . . in North Carolina, as we look ahead, we've got to start thinking smarter about what water we have and how we use it. And that's going to be the challenge, I think, for many of us across the region is that we've got to . . . we've got to go beyond just trying to find more water. We've got to learn how to modify our use of water so that it's the best use—most efficient use.

So I think that in North Carolina certainly, and I would imagine Brian would agree for Georgia, that we're been challenged to think differently about water. And it's not just "Find more water." It's . . .we've got to be smart in how we make use of it.

And droughts create their own economy. For instance, here in Raleigh, the city of Raleigh is advocating homeowners to install rain barrels. These are barrels that are put at the bottom of a downspout of a gutter system. And so they captured the water that runs off the roof following a storm.

I have a neighbor across the street from me who's installed about seven or eight of these rain barrels a couple of weeks ago. Last week, I spoke to him asking him how his rain barrels were doing, and he said he had 400 gallons of water he wanted to sell to someone. So all those, again, have those economic effects.


Oh sure. Well, that is certainly quite a bit to chew on and to think about for our listeners. I thank you both very much for spending time with me today doing this. I appreciate it.


Thanks for allowing us.


Well, and likewise, thank you for your . . . thank you for your time as well.


Well, that is all she wrote for this drought mini series. We hope you got a good picture of how drought is affecting the U.S. and how its long term impacts can be quite significant.

Once again, for up-to-date drought and other water resource info for the United States, go to That's one word: waterwatch.

CoreCast is a product of U.S. Geological Survey Department of the Interior. This is Dave Hebert-thank you very much for listening, and take it easy.

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Music credit:

"Give It Up Daddy Blues" by Albinia Jones


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