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Front Page » August 6, 2013 » Carbon County News » Drought: Natural disaster moving in slow motion
Published 475 days ago

Drought: Natural disaster moving in slow motion


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By RICHARD SHAW
Sun Advocate publisher

Of all of nature's processes that create problems for man, drought is the slowest moving. It can also be the least recognizable from a local viewpoint.

Hurricanes destroy property and flood people out in a relatively short time. Tornadoes are even quicker. Earthquakes happen and may shake for awhile, but when they are over it is pretty obvious. But drought is like the proverbial fox that comes in and takes a hen from the large chicken house each night and it is only when the chicken rancher realizes he is short a dozen does he begin to understand what is happening.

Droughts are sneaky because they often come in the form of what most people consider good weather. Warm and dry winter days, with temperatures above normal and no icy roads make for pleasant living. But the price people pay for that "good weather" can and will catch up with the economy of an area and even them as individuals.

Agriculture is the largest consumer of water in the United States and because of that it is also the most sensitive to drought. Agricultural producers incur a whole spectrum of revenue losses and cost increases during drought. For example, production costs increase if producers have to buy supplemental water resources (e.g., drill a new well, lease water from senior water rights holders, shift to higher efficiency irrigation technologies) to support crops and livestock. The problem is that often even with these kinds of measures the drought still affects the output of agriculture

Farmers and ranchers also continue to suffer from drought impacts for a long time after the crisis is over. Perennial crops can be damaged because drought created physiological stress increases a plant's susceptibility to disease and insects. In addition wind can cause a loss of soil organic matter which can reduce productivity for a lengthy period of time. Finally, reduced crop quantity, quality and reproduction hinder a farmer's abilities to recover from drought.

Livestock ranchers also suffer long-term impacts of drought. Decreased rangeland productivity forces ranchers to rest damaged grazing lands, lease additional graze lands (if available), increase supplemental feeding, and/or reduce herd size. Herd reduction is much like wiping out a bank account. When it was there it could grow to a certain extent on its own. When there is nothing left to start over with, the recovery takes a long time.

But this damage to agriculture stretches far beyond the a field of grain or a pasture where cattle graze. The damage down the line from agriculture and the segment of the economy which is affected the most initially can be devastating.

When one considers agriculture, one needs to consider the whole of it in terms of agribusiness. That means anything that is connected with farming or ranching including tool manufacturers, transport companies (railroads and trucking), seed and supply companies and equipment and supply manufacturers.

While the pain of a drought (depending on the length) is not equalized between the entire supply and work chain, it eventually catches up if the drought is prolonged. For instance, a farmer who faces drought for one season may delay buying a new piece of equipment for his operation because of low cash flow. That can affect the manufacturer and everyone attached to it down the line. For one year that is not as much of a problem for the builder, but if that happens season after season for some length of time, it can critically affect a manufacturers (and the subsequent dealers) business.

However in the transport business, the cost is immediatelly felt. Many transportation companies operate on a very thin margin and one that is variable because of equipment, repair and particularly fuel prices. A drop in hauling goods to market or raw agricultural products to food processers or other points of delivery can mean a loss that can put them out of business quickly, therefore affecting employees who spend money in other ways.

This is just a few of the major problems that can be caused by a drought, operations which are directly affected by agriculture. The farmer or rancher is just the first in line to feel the pinch.

The amount of water it takes to produce the food people eat, the clothes they wear and other products that come from growing plants and animals can be surprising. Of course it can be higher or lower depending on where things are grown. In addition some tables that have been produced over the years noting the water used in agricultural production stretch the use right down to the product used or the food put on the table. For instance some measures put an average steak set on a dinner table to eat at 1800 gallons of water. For most people they would only be thinking of the amount of water the cow where the steak came from was drinking. But that 1800 gallon figure comes from the entire chain from the amount of water it takes to grow the feed to give to the cow, to the processing of the meat in a meat plant and then the transport to the market and to the home where it is cooked. So the figures vary a great deal depending on the chain of production and delivery. Some other figures for other commonly used food items include four gallons of water for every gallon of milk produced, a whole chicken 400 gallons of water (and each egg they lay 150 gallons), a single orange 13.8 gallons of water, a watermelon 100 gallons, and a loaf of bread takes 150 gallons.

Manufactured items from agricultural products are a little easier to discern. For instance to produce a pair of cotton jeans and a cotton t-shirt to go with it takes about 2200 gallons of water.

But manufacturing as a whole, is another entire ball game. Building and making things takes a lot of water, and that water almost always comes from the same supplies that farmers and municipalities use.

(Sources: USDA, the Drought Mitigation Center, treehugger.com, drought monitor).

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