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Global warming or no, rainfall deficit increasing

The weather gods are nothing if not fickle: balmy, sunny, 70-degree days in late December and early January, when it should be wet, cold, and miserable? What's up with this?

While California's Napa Valley and other areas have been suffering torrential rains and flooding, many areas across the Southwest, and even into the Hot Springs, Ark., area have been so dry that wildfires have been an ongoing problem.

Severe drought continues over many areas of the upper Midwest, but Seattle area residents have been bemoaning a month of consecutive rainy days, close to a record set more than half a century ago. (The city's long-time reputation for rain is somewhat misleading — rain in the summer months is rare and much of the rest of the time rains are light and sprinkly. Average annual rainfall is about 36 inches, significantly less than our “normal” average in the Delta.)

Here in the “rainbelt” section of the South, much of the Mid-South region ended 2005 with annual rainfall deficits of 15 inches to 20 inches. That's pretty substantial. Had it not been for the rains off Hurricane Rita, the deficit would've been even greater.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita wreaked havoc on crops across southern Mississippi and Louisiana, but over the rest of the Mid-South farmers could hardly have asked for a better harvest season.

Coming on the heels of a rain-short year, if the few-and-far-between rainfall pattern continues through spring, another dry summer and sky-high energy prices could put Delta growers in a very expensive bind in terms of crop irrigation — not to mention exacerbating the ongoing decline of aquifers in many areas.

At the recent Intelligent Use of Water Summit at Pasadena, Calif., panelists called for greater communication of the need to conserve water resources, not only through observance of current water conservation policies, but by also imposing stricter water regulation policies to increase awareness of the need to conserve.

“The excessive mining of our aquifers is causing environmental degradation on a potentially enormous scale,” said Robert Glennon, Morris K. Udall Professor of Law and Public Policy in the Rogers College of Law at the University of Arizona. Across the nation, he said, “rivers and lakes have disappeared, and fresh water is becoming scarce.”

Excessive pumping, he said, “has created an environmental catastrophe known to relatively few scientists and water management experts…not just in the arid West…but even in places we think of as relatively wet.”

A “disconnect between law and science,” and “our refusal to recognize the unsustainability of our water use” are major causes of the problem, Glennon said.

When statistics show two-thirds of the almost 30 trillion gallons of water pumped in the United States going to agriculture, the battle over water rights can only be expected to escalate.

“With global water experts predicting that the conflicts of the future will be fought over water, it's essential that world leaders, environmental experts, and the general public be aware of the need to conserve water,” said Jennifer Riley-Chetwynd, corporate marketing brand manager for Rain Bird Corp., which hosted the conference.

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