Drought in South Is Normal Part of Climate The drought affecting Atlanta stems, in part, from the way Atlanta sits on relatively high ground, says Michael Hayes, Director of the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He says precipitation in Atlanta naturally runs down to its shared basin with Florida.

Drought in South Is Normal Part of Climate

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The fire-stricken areas are suffering from drought. And in that way, Southern California resembles much of the rest of the country. As we reported in recent weeks, Atlanta's main reservoir is running dry and Lake Superior is shrinking.

Ms. CYNTHIA SELLINGER (Hydrologist, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration): One inch of water on Lake Superior is equal to or 500 billion gallons of water. And so Lake Superior has fallen about two feet. So that's a huge amount of water loss.

INSKEEP: Hydrologist Cynthia Sellinger helped us to explain the Midwest water shortage.

This morning we've called Dr. Michael Hayes. He's director of the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Welcome to the program.

Dr. MICHAEL HAYES (Director, National Drought Mitigation Center, University of Nebraska-Lincoln): It's good to be here.

INSKEEP: How bad a year is this?

Dr. HAYES: It's a really interesting year. What we say, though, is that there is severe to extreme drought somewhere in the United States every year. So last year, it was Texas and Oklahoma. This year it was the areas that you just mentioned.

INSKEEP: Are we saying that this is normal because drought has become normal or there's really nothing worry about at all here?

Dr. HAYES: In the past, we've considered it kind of an abnormal part of climate, so we react to it in a very crisis reactive way. But what we really need to do is think of drought as a normal part of climate and be prepared for drought.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about one of the areas that's experiencing drought right now - the Atlanta, Georgia area. And let's listen to Shirley Franklin who's the mayor of Atlanta.

Mayor SHIRLEY FRANKLIN (Democrat, Atlanta): Please, please, please, do not use water unnecessarily. This is not a test. This is a case where we have a water shortage.

INSKEEP: Other than lack of rain, what's causing this drought?

Dr. HAYES: A lot of things. Just kind of the way Atlanta sits and the way people have used the water, how they get their water.

INSKEEP: When you say the way Atlanta sits, do you mean it's on relatively high ground, it's near some mountains and the water just happens to runaway from the Atlanta area rather than running toward it?

Dr. HAYES: Absolutely. It goes down toward southern Georgia, into Alabama and Florida. And, of course, that's a cause for concern as well.

INSKEEP: It's been widely noted that Georgia is being required to share its water with Florida. How come?

Dr. HAYES: Well, the water ends up in Florida. It flows south from the Atlanta metro area into Florida. And so, like a lot of river systems, you have these interstate international basins, and you have to share water and there are agreements to do so.

INSKEEP: If you look at the Atlanta metro area, are they receiving less and less rainfall compared to 50 years ago?

Dr. HAYES: As a matter of fact, I don't think that would prove true if you looked at the climate records. What's different about Atlanta is there are a lot more people, there are a lot more ways people are using that water, and we are looking at things like recreation and tourism needs differently, we are looking at endangered species needs differently. So the circumstances around how that precipitation is being used in terms of water resources is completely different now in Atlanta than it was even 20 years ago.

INSKEEP: You're saying if there had been this exact same drought 50 years ago, there might have been some dead crops, people would be concerned, but it would be nowhere near as big a deal as it is now?

Dr. HAYES: Absolutely. We used to think of drought as a purely agricultural disaster. Now it's affecting people in a lot of different ways and you can see that right in the Georgia, southeast United States area.

INSKEEP: Well, that may bring us to our next piece of tape here. This is from David Stooksberry of the University of Georgia speaking in recent days.

Professor DAVID STOOKSBERRY (Engineering and Atmospheric Sciences, University of Georgia; State Climatologist, Georgia): Drought in many ways is the Rodney Dangerfield of natural disasters - nobody would ever take him seriously. It's not until situations get critical that we start to take it seriously.

INSKEEP: Okay, given that you're saying that the major droughts have had across the country this year are not too exceptional, is there anything about these droughts that should cause us to take droughts more seriously?

Dr. HAYES: I think there are some excellent lessons that we could learn. And if I was a water manager somewhere else in the country right now, I would be looking at what's happening in the southeastern United States, and I would saying to myself what can we do so that this does not happen in our area.

INSKEEP: What are some lessons?

Dr. HAYES: Don't wait and see what's going to happen in the next week or next season, next month. If you're starting to see a decrease in water supplies, take action immediately, set up a plan as to exactly what actions and activities you are going to take as you see some of those diminishing water resources in your area.

INSKEEP: Dr. Michael Hayes is director of the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Thanks very much.

Dr. HAYES: You're welcome.

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