The Dust Bowl: Water conservation may be the key to avoiding a repeat

Keith R. Duncan, P.E.
Project Manager
Garver Engineers
Norman, Oklahoma
Member, APWA Water Resources Management Committee

John Steinbeck's classic novel The Grapes of Wrath chronicles the social and economic desperation of the Joad family and their struggle for survival during the Great Depression and the worst drought in U.S. history—the Dust Bowl. Now, Texas, Oklahoma and other parts of the country are feeling the effects of drought conditions which have not been experienced since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

Through October 2006, precipitation in central Oklahoma was about 8 inches (25 percent) below average, and a large part of Texas was deficient by more than 12 inches of rainfall. Only once in the past five years has central Oklahoma received an average rainfall.

Adding to the misery is the fact that the National Weather Service reported that the January-June 2006 period was the hottest since 1895 when it began keeping records. In Oklahoma City, only 1980 had more days with temperature above 100 degrees.

Even as late as Nov. 16, 2006, the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality reported that 74 water systems still had water use restrictions in place. In July 2006, more than 1,100 public drinking water systems in Texas had placed some type of restriction on water usage.

In addition, warmer than average temperatures, low relative humidity and high winds added to the dry conditions to create an abnormally severe wildfire threat. Burn bans were issued and updated regularly as conditions warranted. Between Nov. 1, 2005, and Feb. 1, 2006, almost 1,900 wildfires consumed 440,000 acres, reported the Oklahoma Forestry Service. Texas and Oklahoma together lost more than 1 million acres to wildfires before summer ever arrived.

Furthermore, the drought conditions have had a tremendous impact on agri-business including decreased yield in nearly all crops, decreased milk production, increased feed costs, lower livestock market prices, and devastating cattle and poultry losses.

By June 2006, the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln reported that more than 60 percent of the United States was experiencing abnormally dry or drought conditions, from Georgia to Arizona and from Canada to Mexico. This drought cycle is in many ways reminiscent of the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s—one of only two time periods that ranks higher in overall severity.

A tremendous amount of information is available regarding drought conditions. Many municipal, state and federal agencies along with a multitude of special interest and advocacy groups are posting detailed online updates about current drought conditions, predictions for the short-term and long-range outlooks, and recommendations for mitigation.

The National Drought Mitigation Center is structured to help people and institutions develop and implement measures to reduce societal vulnerability to drought by stressing preparedness and risk management rather than crisis management. Most of the NDMC's services are directed toward state, federal, regional and tribal governments that are involved in drought and water supply planning. The NDMC offers a weekly publication, U.S. Drought Monitor, which includes a severity map based on the latest weather data updates.

The Western Water Policy Review Advisory Commission has been charged by the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Reclamation to provide a comprehensive review of federal activities in the 19 western states that directly or indirectly affect the allocation and use of surface and subsurface water resources. Given that drought is a normal feature of the climate in the west, future policies and activities must include drought management as an integral part of overall water management, and will require an interagency approach that extends well beyond the traditional water mission agencies.

According to WWPRAC, drought can be defined in a variety of ways including meteorological, agricultural, hydrological and socioeconomic. Meteorological drought is expressed on the basis of dryness in comparison to what is "normal." Agricultural drought is defined as the effect of water shortage on crops, pasture and ponds. Hydrological drought is defined as the effect of precipitation on surface water and groundwater supply. Hydrological drought usually lags behind the occurrence of meteorological or agricultural droughts.

Socioeconomic drought connects the supply of water with the social and economic causes and effects. Besides the obvious effect of population growth on water demand, the evidence is clear that in most areas of the country per capita usage is on the rise. This increase in usage (socioeconomic drought) only amplifies the effects of hydrological drought. Drought occurs when the demand exceeds supply, whether as a result of deficient rainfall, increased consumption or both.

The connection between the naturally occurring cycle of hydrological drought and human consumption emphasizes the importance of water resource management. If demand continues to increase, the effects of drought will likewise continue to increase.

Policies that promote mitigation measures today will help reduce the impact of tomorrow's drought. There are two ways to plan for drought—reactive or proactive. The traditional reactive governmental approach has been to wait until the effects of drought have reached a predetermined threshold based upon total system usage, levels in the supply, etc., and then impose restrictions aimed at reducing peak-system demand. Common actions include odd-even watering, restrictions on outdoor watering, and off-peak usage.

Unfortunately, with this reactive mode, water system operation and consumer behavior returns to normal when the rainfall comes back. The reactive approach leads to larger and larger storage, supply and treatment facilities to ensure that supply always exceeds demand and that critical thresholds for water restrictions are rarely exceeded. Even as early as 1979, the General Accounting Office called this approach "ineffective, poorly coordinated, and untimely." In 2006, we now say this approach is not "sustainable."

Within the reality of tighter and tighter budgets, stagnant user rates, and the reluctance of voters to build larger and more expensive infrastructure, a new mindset is needed—a proactive approach. The Federal Emergency Management Agency stated in 1996 that the nation will receive $2 in savings from future disasters for every dollar spent on mitigation.

Systemic, strategic drought planning is widely accepted across the country, and the number of states with drought plans has grown dramatically. Although this increase is a positive sign, these plans still are largely reactive, and in many cases, treat drought as an extension of the Emergency Response Plan. However, the growing number of states with drought plans suggests that there is an increased concern about the potential impact of extended water shortages and there is an attempt to address those concerns through effective planning.

One proactive, long-range approach to water shortage mitigation which is gaining popularity and credibility is the Water Conservation Plan. Although the size of infrastructure can always be increased (for a price), an often overlooked long-range strategy is to reduce per capita consumption.

In 1998, following input from a broad-based group including government, industry and environmental representatives, the Environmental Protection Agency issued guidelines for water conservation plans for public water systems. The preparation of these guidelines was required by the 1996 Amendments to the Safe Water Drinking Act.

States may require water systems to submit a water conservation plan as a loan condition from the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. Although voluntary, the guidelines will eventually help bring conservation into the mainstream of water capital facility planning.

The guidelines contain population-targeted approaches and step-by-step procedures. The Basic Guidelines are geared to systems serving fewer than 10,000 people; the Intermediate Guidelines are appropriate for systems serving 10,000 to 100,000 people; and the Advanced Guidelines are for systems serving more than 100,000 people.

The Basic Guidelines contain five simplified planning steps, while the Intermediate and Advanced contain nine steps. The steps are flexible and are adaptable to the specific needs of the water system. Suggested conservation measures are organized in three levels, from the most basic to the more advanced. The Level 1 measures include:

  • Universal metering
  • Water accounting and loss control
  • Costing and pricing
  • Information and education

The Guidelines list a significant amount of supporting information including detailed descriptions of conservation measures, conservation benchmarks, additional information resources, funding sources, and state contacts.

Using the idea of reduced per capita consumption as a primary management strategy, the North Texas Municipal Water District, which serves 1.5 million people, became the first drinking water entity in the state to adopt the "Water IQ/Know Your Water" campaign in June 2006. Although unfunded by the state legislature, the public education campaign is designed to have an impact similar to the "Don't Mess with Texas" litter effort. Through a combination of printed materials and media spots, the NTMWD encouraged customers to reduce consumption by five percent.

More and more communities are recognizing the tangible benefits of water conservation. This can be quickly seen by the number of municipalities that have placed their approved Water Conservation Plan online and available for public use—including Albuquerque, Phoenix, Denver and Houston.

One community that has embraced the concept of water conservation is Norman, Okla. The City of Norman is located just south of Oklahoma City in the center of the state, and is the home of the University of Oklahoma and the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center.

Earlier this year, the City Council adopted its latest updates to the "City of Norman Water Conservation Plan." The goal of this plan is to stop the annual increase in per capita water demand, and reduce consumption through the implementation of a broad-based strategy that includes conservation-based water rates, reuse strategies, comprehensive metering, plumbing and landscaping ordinances, leak detection and repair, and public education.

Between 1990 and 2005, the population of Norman increased 34 percent. During that same time period, per capita consumption increased 17 percent, from 121 to 142 gallons per capita per day.

Also during this same time period, Norman maximized its allotment at its surface water supply, the Bureau of Reclamation's Lake Thunderbird. In early December, Lake Thunderbird was reported at 58 percent capacity. In an attempt to augment the supply, the city increased the production from existing and new groundwater wells. However, due to the presence of naturally occurring arsenic in the Garber-Wellington aquifer, 14 wells were taken out of service. The Norman situation can be summarized as increased demand from a decreased supply and illustrates the point where hydrological drought and socioeconomic drought converge.

Proactive conservation and reduced per capita usage alone will not insulate a community from the effects of a severe water shortage. A Drought Contingency Plan is part of Norman's document (Section 6), and identifies the official threshold triggers and measurable goals for: Stage 1 - voluntary water conservation; Stage 2 - Moderate (Mandatory) Conservation; and Stage 3 - Severe (Mandatory) Conservation. This Drought Contingency Plan is still reactive, but is defined within the context of a document that presents a comprehensive proactive approach.

The benefits of reduced consumption are a reduced capital investment in water projects over the planning period and a decreased demand on the existing surface and groundwater supplies.

During the Dust Bowl years, the goal was survival. A wealth of information was gained regarding erosion control and farming practices. The lessons learned from those experiences now are the first line of defense toward ensuring that the Dust Bowl never is repeated.

Although our ability to predict the weather has improved dramatically, our ability to control the weather has not kept pace, and drought conditions periodically will continue to be a challenge. However, through a systematic, proactive approach which addresses the socioeconomic factors that can aggravate the situation, municipalities can thrive even in the midst of a drought.

Keith Duncan, a Past President of the Oklahoma Chapter, can be reached at (405) 329-2555 or