Dartmouth expert sees lessons in drought

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/27/2021 9:08:25 PM
Modified: 9/27/2021 9:08:22 PM

HANOVER — Wildfire smoke brought hazy skies and polluted air to the Upper Valley this summer, but they were also a harbinger of other drought-related problems people in the Upper Valley should consider in a warming climate.

That’s according to Justin Mankin, an assistant professor of geography at Dartmouth College, who co-leads a drought task force for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which recently published a report on the megadrought in the Southwest that has had cascading effects across the country. 

“The fact that this drought really has had such an impact out West really hammers home that we’re not well-adapted to the climate that we have right now, never mind the climate that continues to change with greenhouse gas emissions,” Mankin said in an interview on Monday. “There is a need to build in resilience measures at the local, state and federal levels.”

One of the “takeaways” of NOAA’s analysis in the West is that living in a wet climate does not preclude the risks of drought, Mankin warned. Like the Northeast, Oregon and Washington have high precipitation rates in comparison to other regions, but they are also suffering from a stubborn drought. More oscillations between precipitation extremes are likely in the Northeast, he said.

“We have long built infrastructure to smooth out spatio-temporal inconsistencies in water availability, from Roman aqueducts to the Wilder Dam,” Mankin said. “One of the things to be thinking about is the current resilience of our infrastructure to rapid swings in wet and dry.”

He said that the Northeast needs to be “forward-thinking about adapting to climate impacts.” In particular, he argued for looking to communities in the West that are already dealing with extreme weather and putting in policies. Still, a drought in Vermont and New Hampshire looks very different than out west: Droughts in the Northeast affect a much smaller geographic area, and they do not last as long.

“But we’re competing for the same resources,” Mankin said. “It’s important for Vermonters and folks in New Hampshire to ask what it looks like to compete for resources to manage drought impacts locally when it’s not a front-page news story.”

The drought’s economic impacts have cascaded across the country, although they do not account for a nationwide inflation in food prices.

“We’re living in an interconnected economy, and there are many goods and services that support life here back east,” Mankin said. “There are disruptions propagating through our economy.”

Some economists have said crops did well in the Midwest this summer. However, the drought farther west has impacted everything from alfalfa and almonds, to tomatoes and wheat, according to the California Farm Water Coalition. It has pressured farmers to bulldoze water-intensive crops such as wine grapes and fruit and leave thousands of acres of farmland fallow for the season. Another half a million acres will also likely no longer be productive farmland over the next 20 years, Mike Wade, who directs the coalition, said.

Particular specialty crops — like “processing tomatoes” — have been hit hard, Wade said. These tomatoes become salsa, canned tomatoes and tomato paste. Some wholesale prices nearly doubled between January and April, he said. California expects intense oscillations in wet and dry precipitation and Wade hopes that, if passed, the infrastructure bill may give California farmers infrastructure to store water from wet years for dry years.

Producers are facing dev astating economic consequences because of extreme droughts, but their struggles are a small factor in the larger issue of food inflation, said Seth Meyer, the chief economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. However, the supply of some specialty crops, like the spring wheat used in many artisanal breads, has been impacted because they are almost all grown in the West.

“We have transportation issues, supply chain issues, labor issues — those things overwhelm the drought impacts on food prices,” he said. Farmers’ profits only account for a small percent of the price of a given food product. In the Northeast, farmers may indirectly benefit from falling production in California, he said.

In the near future, the economic impacts of the megadrought may worsen, Mankin said.

“How do we economically continue to manage this drought as an acute crisis as it becomes a longer-term drag on resources?” he asked.

Water banked in reservoirs and emergency water conservation measures have helped to mitigate the worst impacts of the drought in southern California. Often, winter brings rain and snow melt to the West. But Mankin said weather models indicate that the region will not see a wet winter, potentially compounding the problem.

Claire Potter is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at cpotter@vnews.com or 603-727- 3242.

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