As the snowpack and moisture in the Colorado River Basin show large areas of moderate to extreme drought, some are wondering if the term “drought” is misleading people into thinking it’s a temporary situation. Do we need a new vocabulary to describe conditions in the West?

When we hear or read a headline that says, “Most of Colorado is Headed for Drought,” or “Southern California is Experiencing an Extended Drought,” it’s probably common to expect that with those declarations watering restrictions are coming, or maybe that you’ll have to ask for a glass of water at a restaurant. But many hear the word “drought” and think it’s a passing occurrence that will go away at some point, and (hopefully soon) “normal” conditions will return where things will get wet again.

Use of the word “drought,” particularly in the Colorado River Basin, may be changing. At least that is the goal of Doug Kenney who directs the Western Water Policy Program at Colorado University in Boulder. He says that droughts are temporary problems and go away, you just have to wait them out, but this drought that we’re in is not a normal drought – it’s not going away.

Vocabulary graphic

The Colorado River Research Group of which Kenney is a member just issued a publication called, “When a Drought is Not a Drought.” The main problem they want to emphasize is that the region is getting warmer, which translates to less water in the Colorado River – a condition he and other experts say will persist.

Kenney says that recent precipitation has dropped, but not as much as we may think. What has really fallen is the flow of water in streams, and the reason stream flows are way down is because of the effect of heat. He says that’s really what we need to talk about. It’s not a drought in the classic sense.

Do 'new normal' lower water levels in Colorado River Basin warrant a new vocabulary for 'drought'? Click To Tweet

Along with stream flows, soil moisture is also down, and it is becoming more and more difficult to keep water where it’s needed. A big part of the cause, if not the exclusive cause, according to Kenney, is greenhouse gas emissions, that are making the earth warmer. With heat comes more water loss from evaporation, and earlier snow melts, which mean dry summers and lower stream flows at the end of summer.

These conditions, which are now regular, emphasize that “drought” is really not an accurate term. Kenney says that drought for most people means that precipitation levels are abnormally low, and that it’s a temporary phenomenon that is going away. But that’s really not a good description of what’s going on in the Colorado River Basin, and as long as we keep using the term “drought” we are going to give people a very unrealistic vision of what’s going on.

Instead, Kenney describes the conditions along the Colorado River as “aridification,” meaning the region is becoming more arid and that’s what needs to be talked about, not drought. “Aridification” conveys the notion that what’s happening is a process of going from one climatic regime to another, and as soon as people understand this, the conversation will improve as to what we need to do about it.

Others are talking about how we talk about water in the West. Tom Philp of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, recently wrote in Water Deeply that “drought” and “normal” need to be swept into the dustbin of history. He says it’s more important to focus on the overall trend. Philp said new terms like “aridification” or even “chronic semi-drought” are important because they get you out of what’s happening right now and gets you thinking much more about what’s been happening in the last ten years and what we think is going to happen in the decades to come. Decisions about water are made for the next generation, for your kids and for your kids’ kids. That’s the mindset that a water agency has to have. So, Philp says, to obsess about whether we’re in a drought right now or what the average is compared to now is contrary to the need to think long-term.

Doug Kenney says that a lot of the people who manage water, like those who work for providers in the West, get this, but using the term “drought” is less scary than “aridification.” However, it’s important for the public to understand what’s going on. He says we’re transitioning to a different world, and people need to know that and need to be prepared for that.

Both Kenney and Philp agree that being prepared means using a new vocabulary to have needed conversations.

Reprinted with permission of H2O Radio, a Yale Climate Connections content-sharing partner.

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