Documenting drought from the ground up


While her neighbors in Nebraska water their lawns, Denise Gutzmer pages through thousands of online articles about crop loss, wild fires and water shortages. As a climate scientist specializing in drought impacts, the waste bugs her. “I have a different sense of the importance of water than my neighbors do,” she said. But aside from scolding her son for excess toilet flushing, she doesn’t preach about water conservation. Instead, Gutzmer raises awareness about drought in a more powerful way: she documents its impact.

Gutzmer uses her article collection to update the Drought Impact Reporter, a mapping tool that relies on user and media reports to chart the environmental, social and economic impacts of drought in the United States. “There’s a lot of stuff I get to throw out,” she says, like articles about a losing high school basketball team’s “scoring drought.” But this summer, there’s been a lot of relevant material to read through. In the week of July 9, Gutzmer scanned 9,200 media reports, color-coding them by impact and state before logging them into the DIR. The flood of articles is reflective of the severity of this summer’s drought. According to the National Drought Mitigation Center, which runs the DIR, 60 percent of the country is experiencing some degree of drought—the highest percentage since the 1950s and the worst since the Center started tracking drought 12 years ago.

While news articles may document drought’s effects on a community or region, from corn losses in Illinois to the premature sale of cattle in Wyoming, it’s harder to find out how one farm, or one rancher, is suffering. That’s where the other half of the DIR’s data comes in. The Center solicits on-the-ground observations from citizen scientists around the country, many of whom are members of the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network. The reports give a vivid depiction of life in water-stressed areas, documenting dust devils and itchy eyes in New Mexico, a fishing cabin torched by wildfire in Colorado, and easier gardening in California due to a lack of weeds.

The most vivid are those that convey not only the effects of the drought, but the personality of the report’s author. “It is so dry, dry, dry,” noted a Livingston, MT couple who have been pasturing their son’s horses for the summer. Every day the grass needs water, they wrote, and “I know the well water I put on them isn’t nearly as good as God’s water.” Near the New Mexico-Colorado border, a resident caught black bears, porcupines and foxes on an outdoor camera as they searched for water. And in far eastern Colorado, a Wray resident is “starting to panic—Will I find hay? Will we have a fire and have to evacuate? Only God knows when we will get moisture, and we are burning up.”

Anecdotes like these are exactly what the DIR is all about: bridging the gap between the physical and personal impacts of drought. “This is a chance to have a richer description of what’s actually occurring,” said Kelly Smith, a drought resource specialist at the Center, “because ultimately the effects of drought (are) all local.”

Emily Guerin is an intern at High Country News.

Screenshot of the Drought Impact Reporter courtesy National Drought Mitigation Center.

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