H2O Radio
As the snowpack and moisture in the Colorado River Basin show large areas of moderate to extreme drought, some are wondering if the term “drought” is misleading people into thinking it’s a temporary situation. Do we need a new vocabulary to describe conditions in the West?

Does a Changing Climate Require a Change in Vocabulary?

When we hear or read a headline that says, “Most of Colorado Is Headed for Drought,” or “Southern California Is Experiencing an Extended Drought,” it’s probably common to expect that with those declarations watering restrictions are coming, or maybe that you’ll have to ask for a glass of water at a restaurant. But many hear the word “drought” and think it’s a passing occurrence that will go away at some point, and (hopefully soon) “normal” conditions will return where things will get wet again.

Use of the word “drought,” particularly in the Colorado River Basin, may be changing. At least that is the goal of Doug Kenney who directs the Western Water Policy Program at Colorado University in Boulder. He says that droughts are temporary problems and go away, you just have to wait them out, but this drought that we’re in is not a normal drought—it’s not going away.

PullQuote_Kenney The Colorado River Research Group of which Kenney is a member just issued a publication called, "When a Drought Is Not a Drought." The main problem they want to emphasize is that the region is getting warmer, which translates to less water in the Colorado River—a condition he and other experts say will persist.

Kenney says that recent precipitation has dropped, but not as much as we may think. What has really fallen is the flow of water in streams, and the reason stream flows are way down is because of the effect of heat. He says that’s really what we need to talk about. It’s not a drought in the classic sense.

Along with stream flows, soil moisture is also down, and it is becoming more and more difficult to keep water where it’s needed. A big part of the cause, if not the exclusive cause, according to Kenney, is greenhouse gas emissions, that are making the earth warmer. With heat comes more water loss from evaporation, and earlier snow melts, which mean dry summers and lower stream flows at the end of summer.

Doug Kenney These conditions, which are now regular, emphasize that “drought” is really not an accurate term. Kenney says that drought for most people means that precipitation levels are abnormally low, and that it’s a temporary phenomenon that is going away. But that’s really not a good description of what’s going on in the Colorado River Basin, and as long as we keep using the term “drought” we are going to give people a very unrealistic vision of what’s going on.

Instead, Kenney describes the conditions along the Colorado River as “aridification,” meaning the region is becoming more arid and that’s what needs to be talked about, not drought. “Aridification” conveys the notion that what’s happening is a process of going from one climatic regime to another, and as soon as people understand this, the conversation will improve as to what we need to do about it.

Others are talking about how we talk about water in the West. Tom Philp of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, recently wrote in Water Deeply that “drought” and “normal” need to be swept into the dustbin of history. He says it's more important to focus on the overall trend. Philp said new terms like “aridification” or even “chronic semi-drought” are important because they get you out of what’s happening right now and gets you thinking much more about what’s been happening in the last ten years and what we think is going to happen in the decades to come. Decisions about water are made for the next generation, for your kids and for your kids’ kids. That’s the mindset that a water agency has to have. So, Philp says, to obsess about whether we’re in a drought right now or what the average is compared to now is contrary to the need to think long-term.

Doug Kenney says that a lot of the people who manage water, like those who work for providers in the West, get this, but using the term “drought” is less scary than “aridification.” However, it’s important for the public to understand what’s going on. He says we’re transitioning to a different world, and people need to know that and need to be prepared for that.

Both Kenney and Philp agree that being prepared means using a new vocabulary to have needed conversations. 💧


Sound Files

This story is available for download at PRX.org and Audioport.org. It cannot be broadcast or reproduced without the permission of H2O Media, Ltd.


Colorado River Research Group

Colorado River Research Group (CRRG) is comprised of ten veteran Colorado River scholars. The CRRG's purpose is to provide a non-partisan, basin-wide perspective on matters pertaining to the Colorado River, helping all those with a stake in the river identify, justify, and implement actions that sustainably meet society's demands for water while maintaining the distinct attributes of the Colorado River ecosystem. CRRG's latest report “When Is Drought Not a Drought? Drought, Aridification, and the 'New Normal'” suggests that we need to confront the reality that regional warming trends and its negative impact on runoff, are not a temporary condition.

Doug Kenney, PhD

Doug Kenney, is the director of the Western Water Policy Program & Senior Research Associate, Getches-Wilkinson Center. As WWPP Director and CU Environmental Studies faculty member. Dr. Kenney designs and implements a comprehensive research agenda examining a variety of western water issues, including law and policy reform, river basin, and watershed-level planning, and the design of institutional arrangements. He is also affiliated with the CU/NOAA Western Water Assessment, exploring the link between climate change/variability and western U.S. water management.

Thomas S. Philp

Thomas S. Philp is the executive strategist for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD). His current assignments for MWD relate to the policy and political challenges of Northern California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and to communicate MWD’s water supply challenges within its six-county service area. Philp's latest piece in Water Deeply, “Time to Get Rid of Two Outdated Water Words: ‘Drought’ and ‘Normal,’" suggests that if we are adequately to talk about the weather this century, we are going to need a new lexicon that better captures the current reality.

Published: March 9, 2018
© Copyright H2O Media, LTD.

Journalism About Water and the Environment
© 2018 H2O Media, Ltd. All Rights Reserved.