For Coming Drought Season, Flood of Info

May 16, 2018
During a 2012 drought in Texas, dirt drifts form in a roadside ditch as high winds shift the soil from the bare pasture into the air and onto the roadway. Photo: AgriLife Communications/Kay Ledbetter, Flickr Creative Commons

TipSheet: For Coming Drought Season, Flood of Info

Despite the numerous places where spring floods are still underway, trust us — soon many environmental reporters are going to be covering drought. In fact, parts of the United States right now are already suffering severe drought.

Of course, drought is seasonal and predictable in many parts of the country — even as it stresses out farmers, gardeners, firefighters, fishermen and water system managers.

Like the weather, drought varies. And it is wise not to make too much of it, or too little of it. The long and severe California drought of 2011-2017 ended with one of the wettest winters on record and was just one of a historical series.

A lot of human ingenuity has been applied to even out this variability, with things like reservoirs.

But water is “overallocated” in some parts of the country. Human ingenuity (read hubris) put Los Angeles where it is, in the middle of a naturally arid place. And to cap all that off, climate change is making drought worse.

How you explore drought as a journalist will depend on your audience and the scope of your publication — as well as what is going on.

Of course, drought affects crops and farmers’ livelihoods. And when big wildfires are raging, there may often be a drought story behind them.

And remember that low water levels from drought can impede or stop shipping on the Mississippi River and other waterways.

More angles? Any fisher can tell you drought matters hugely for all kinds of fisheries, but especially for coldwater fisheries and those sensitive to salinity. In some parts of the country, such as the Colorado River Basin, the drought story leads to an underlying water allocation story.

Drought is also an important part of the larger water resources development beat, which hardly exists because so few reporters get to cover it.

Bottom line: It’s smart to have some resources for reporting on drought at the ready.

Resources for covering drought

One of the handiest tools to get is the U.S. Drought Monitor, produced at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln under a collaboration that includes the National Drought Mitigation Center, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Drought Monitor produces a weekly map that is color-coded and easy to follow. It’s not copyrighted (so do credit its authors) and is online in forms that you can simply link to.

The regional write-ups can be helpful too. You can get the data behind all this, as well as links to various forecasts and outlooks.

But the drought monitor map is really just the tip of the iceberg. The partner National Drought Mitigation Center, or NDMC, is worth knowing about as well. It is a major focus of a network of government agencies and academic units that work on drought. These can be important sources also.

Here are a few of them:

  • USDA Disaster Resource Center. Addresses other ag disaster types also (e.g., floods, pests) but collects a lot of newsy information on drought.
  • U.S. Drought Impact Reporter. This project of the NDMC is a continuous feed of drought-related news. You can subscribe to it as an RSS feed or just browse it via web. Drought Headlines is a similar NDMC news product with a global scope.
  • U.S. Agricultural Commodities in Drought. This is an updated collection of information provided by the USDA and NDMC about the impact of any current drought situation on various agricultural commodities.
  • State-Local Drought Planning. The NDMC publishes a really useful page for those reporting on drought more locally. It is a thorough list of links to drought plans at the state, tribal, watershed, county and local levels. It includes a list of state contacts.
  • National Integrated Drought Information System. NIDIS integrates drought information from the above sources and an even wider array of federal agencies. It offers statistics about drought impacts (e.g., population and area), zip code lookups, upcoming events, another collection of drought news and links to the climate connections to drought on a regional level.
  • NASA Global Climate Change. As of this writing, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration still had online a “Vital Signs of the Planet” site as part of a Global Climate Change program. This included drought insights. Drought info may be easier to find if you search for “extreme events.” Get it while it lasts.
  • EPA Climate Change Indicators. Although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency now downplays climate change, it still publishes online some information about the connections between climate change and drought.
  • Climate Central. This science-based nonprofit, although it has shifted focus recently, still offers information about the connections between climate change and drought — often regional or local.

If you look around, you will find other tipsheets on covering drought too. Climate Central has one. So does the Earth Journalism Network. Another, more policy-based, is from Journalist’s Resource.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 3, No. 20. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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