It's no secret that the absence of rain for an extended period of time has dire consequences. After all, as they say, 'they don't call it drought for nothing'.
But new information is surfacing that sheds new light on just how extreme those consequences can become, and there is also new information that indicates the drought is forcing farmers and government officials alike to consider new ways to deal with serious water shortages.
Taking them by the numbers, researchers are beginning to realize that as water tables continue to drop, the earth responds in an unexpected way. If you live anywhere in the Western U.S. for example, you may not have noticed, but the ground beneath your feet is actually a little higher than it was just a few years ago.
A new study recently released indicates that the loss of water weight beneath the planet's surface has actually caused the land mass to rise in the Western United States, especially in California -- nearly 15 milliliters. The results of the study contradict what many scientists assumed for many long years, namely, when water dries up beneath the ground, the surface drops to fill the void, effectively decreasing surface elevation.
Not so, according to the results of a study released last month in Science.
Using information from 700-plus GPS stations across the country, researchers from Scripps Institution of Oceanography found that the area directly west of New Mexico has risen by an average of four millimeters this year, and an area near the California coast has risen as much as 15 milliliters during the same period. While the increase or rise in elevation is not, well, earth shattering, it does indicate a lack of water--a substantial drought--has a major effect on earth science.
"It looks as if they've lost maybe a foot and a half of water in those places relative to their average level before the drought took hold," said co-author Daniel Cayan, a climatologist with Scripps Institution at the University of California.
If there is any good news coming from the new study it is that armed with this new information, scientists can now determine how much water is or isn't spread across a landscape, according to Roland Bürgmann, a professor at the University of California.
Bürgmann and Cayan are among a growing group of researchers learning that surface and near-surface water supplies have an important influence on the Earth's crust. A falling water table; rising surface elevation -- who would have guessed?
Rethinking water use and conservation
If the new research about water's relationship to rising land mass wasn't enough, the extended drought is forcing not only scientists but government officials and even farmers to reconsider how, when and how much water should be used and for what purpose.
In Clovis, in eastern New Mexico, and geographically not that far from Amarillo and Plainview, Texas, farmers have a standing offer from city officials, namely, the city will pay farmers not to use water on their crops.
The city of Clovis has applied for a federal grant that if awarded would provide funds to the city earmarked for purchasing water rights from area farmers. Suffering from historic low water levels across the area, city officials say they have reached a point where they are forced to rethink how they are going to provide enough water to sustain residents and businesses in and around the community.
Under terms of the proposed plan, farmers would be paid $400 an acre to stop watering crops for a year. According to a few local farmers, the offer might actually be tempting to take considering they are already struggling to get enough water to grow a substantial crop. One farmer, Frank Blackburn, says while it would make farming tougher if he had to rely only on rainfall for his farming operations, he said there might be some hope if farmers changed to types of crops that require less water.
While rainfall amounts around Clovis this year are better than they have been in recent years across most of the state, the drought remains a serious concern with much of the state still under moderate to severe drought conditions. Some areas in the Western part of the state are still listed in extreme drought status.
City officials say in the early years of the new century, about ten years ago, water wells across the area were pumping an average of about 1,200 gallons per minute but warned that most of the same wells today are pumping less than 200 gallons per minute.
Farmers and city officials alike agree that if the drought persists for an even longer period of time, "something drastic" must be done to help deal with water shortages that threaten all life in the area.