Video: Drought plagues more than half the U.S.

  1. Transcript of: Drought plagues more than half the U.S.

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: Now to an expanding danger zone across much of the country thanks to that unusually warm and dry winter. Tonight, parts of 48 states are abnormally dry or in the midst of a full blown drought . For a lot of folks that means a high risk of fires. And for some growers, the situation is now dire, leading to higher prices for everyone at the supermarket eventually. We have our report tonight from our chief environmental affairs correspondent Anne Thompson .

    ANNE THOMPSON reporting: You can already see the impact of the drought . Wildfires erupting in tinder dry sections of New York , New Jersey and Florida . Low levels of water in Colorado streams where there is less snow in the mountains to melt. Today, more than half the country is dry or in drought . It is particularly bad up and down the nation's East Coast . Almost two-thirds of Georgia already suffers from extreme or exceptional drought .

    Mr. KEVIN MITCHUM: There's not any rain in the 10-day forecast.

    THOMPSON: Farmer Kevin Mitchum is watching his livelihood evaporate.

    Mr. MITCHUM: We've been farming pretty well my whole lifetime. And I 've never seen it this bad, not for this long. I think we in the fifth year maybe of a consecutive drought .

    THOMPSON: His family's worked this land for 100 years, but this year his irrigation pond hasn't gotten any water since January and he fears there won't be enough water to plant peas, the crop that provides his summer income. Outside Boston Tony Russo sells produce to markets, restaurants and consumers.

    Mr. TONY RUSSO: Want to see the celery?

    THOMPSON: This week prices of peppers from Florida doubled, where high temperatures have lowered production.

    Mr. RUSSO: Early concerns are always a concern in Florida about freezes in the winter months. This year it's about hot weather. So it's really an unusual situation. In fact, I can't remember conditions like this ever.

    THOMPSON: It's taken more than a record warm March to create this problem. Officials at the US Drought Monitor blame back to back La Nina events starting in 2010 , unusually cool Pacific waters bringing drier than normal conditions to the southern US .

    Mr. BRAD RIPPEY (USDA Meteorologist): We're not sure, 100 percent sure where we're going from here. We hope that it's not going to get much worse. And in fact, with the demise of La Nina , we hope that this is about the end of it.

    THOMPSON: Now, US drought officials say it is way too early to start talking about water restrictions , but the areas that are vulnerable are Georgia and Florida in the East . And in the West , states that depend on snow pack for water resources such as California , Colorado , New Mexico and Utah . Brian :

    WILLIAMS: And, of course, in the Midwest they're getting too much of it tonight. Anne Thompson , thanks.

Image: Texas State Park police officer Thomas Bigham walks across the cracked lake bed of O.C. Fisher Lake
Tony Gutierrez  /  AP file
Texas State Park police officer Thomas Bigham walks across the cracked lake bed of O.C. Fisher Lake on Aug. 3 in San Angelo, Texas.
updated 4/13/2012 1:09:26 PM ET 2012-04-13T17:09:26

When Susan Combs was growing up on her family's West Texas ranch, conserving water was part of everyday life: If the windmill wasn't turning and the storage tank at least half full, the household plumbing was turned off — even the toilets.

In her political career, Combs has been urging Texans to save water for years, first as a lawmaker, then as agriculture commissioner and now as state comptroller. After the worst one-year drought in state history, people finally seem to be listening.

Combs and other officials have reason to hope that lessons from the drought could change the state's attitudes about water usage. And from Dallas to far-flung ranches and rice farms, they are trying to capitalize on the heightened awareness by adopting conservation plans that will ease the next crisis.

"From a water-supply perspective, we are just not prepared," Combs said. "If each town and city doesn't come up with a successful water plan, the state will be worse off for it."

The drought that began more than a year ago is finally breaking in parts of Texas. Spring rains have turned the grass green, quenched thirsty trees and started to fill reservoirs. But state and local officials aren't content to watch the parched landscape change color. They want to analyze the dry spell and assess what worked, what failed and what needs improvement. A few examples:

— The mayors of Dallas and Fort Worth and suburban Arlington and Irving are asking their city councils to consider making permanent the twice-a-week maximum watering restrictions that have been in place for several months. "Conservation has to be a very, very big part of our long-range water preparations," explained Yvonne Dupre, drought response coordinator for Dallas.

— Nearly every legislative committee in the state House and Senate has been asked to review some aspect of the drought. At last month's first meeting of the House Natural Resources Committee, Chairman Allan Ritter pleaded with participants: "Please do not forget how dry that it can get."

— San Antonio, which spent nearly $300,000 promoting water restrictions during the drought, concluded that the effort was so successful that the city now has a campaign reminding people of the risks of another potentially hot, dry summer.

— The Lower Colorado River Authority, which manages two of the largest lakes that provide water to Austin and the surrounding area, has already submitted a proposed long-term plan that would significantly alter how it manages and distributes water.

— The Texas Water Development Board is reviewing ways to create a set of guidelines that would help communities determine when to restrict water usage.

Image: Billy Hefner, left, and Ron Gertson talk on Gertson's farm in Lissie, Texas
Pat Sullivan  /  AP file
Ron Gertson, right, and Billy Hefner talk about the effects of the drought and lack of water on the rice farming industry, Feb. 8, at Gertson's farm in Lissie, Texas.  

One obstacle looms over many of these efforts: The state can make elaborate plans for water needs, but it has no authority or tools to ensure the plans are actually implemented.

Fifteen years ago, in the mid-1990s, Texas suffered a drought that plunged farmers and ranchers into bankruptcy and highlighted how unprepared cities were to deal with severe water shortages. As a result, the Legislature ordered the Water Development Board to plan regionally for the state's water needs, slicing up Texas into several areas that would work together to prepare for the future.

Since then, regional agencies have spent millions of dollars on three new water plans — one every five years — designed to address growing population, scarce water resources and future needs.

"So now, we had another drought, and we had cities running out of water and that's largely because the plan wasn't implemented," said Dan Hardin, director of the water resources planning division.

Hardin worries that the state's fiscal problems will prevent lawmakers from making meaningful improvements.

In addition, the state's utilities did not impose restrictions consistently. In some areas, one city restricted water usage, while a neighboring town did not. Houston, for example, had mandatory restrictions in place for months, while neighboring Sugar Land never implemented its drought-contingency plan.

"You don't see people reacting uniformly to an issue that hit Texas pretty uniformly," said Laura Huffman, director of the Nature Conservancy in Texas.

Farmers and ranchers are taking steps of their own. Many are drilling wells, realizing that in the next drought they will not be able to rely on surface water alone.

In fact, so many farmers are drilling wells, conservation districts say they will have to stop permitting them at some point. At least one rice farmer, Ronald Gertson, is supplementing his income by selling well pipes because he's not getting water from Austin-area reservoirs for his crops.

Combs' office issued a report in February that also looked at strategies employed in other cities.

In arid New Mexico, Santa Fe diversified its water supply and now draws water from two lakes and two aquifers. The city has also taken steps to prevent water evaporation and wildfires, including forest thinning and controlled burning. Those projects could also be useful in Texas, where evaporation during triple-digit heat helped deplete reservoirs and wildfires destroyed more than 1,600 homes and charred 33,000 acres near Austin.

Combs also believes Texas should invest in desalinization, an expensive but quicker alternative to building new reservoirs. Cities, she said, must create more consistent plans for dealing with drought and offer financial incentives to help farmers.

What is certain, she said, is that if steps aren't taken, Texas' future will be shaky.

The lack of water, Combs said, "is the single most devastating thing that can happen to the economy."


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