“Drought Is an Insidious and Patient Killer”: Water Currents’ Jay Famiglietti Testifies to Congress

This week Water Currents’ own Jay Famiglietti came to Washington from California to testify before Congress on the importance of supporting research on drought and hydrology science.

Famiglietti, a professor at the University of California, Irvine’s Department of Earth System Science and Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is perhaps best known for his satellite-based research on over-pumping of aquifers.

Famiglietti told Congress, “Drought is an insidious and patient killer of food and fuel crops, of livestock, of flora and fauna, and of humans, and it has emerged as a major threat to our nation’s food, health, economic, and water security.”

He added that these impacts may be a greater threat in the coming decades since temperatures are expected to go up.

“In spite of its enormous emotional and financial toll, current investment in drought forecasting, monitoring, and planning tools remains far too small to affect timely progress toward critical improvements,” Famiglietti warned.

Famiglietti calls for a national-scale drought monitoring and prediction strategy. He said we need to build on recent successes, which include greater coordination of research, a drought early-warning system, and collaboration with the U.S. Drought Monitor.

But he added that current gaps in funding “drastically limit the confidence of predictions and the accuracy of early warning systems.” Famiglietti said the most important areas are related to deficiencies in the nation’s hydrological assets, and a lack of observations of the water environment and their integration.

“Our nation’s ability to monitor and predict the state of its water environment is well behind where it needs to be to address issues of drought, but also water availability, flooding, groundwater depletion, of human vs ecological requirements, and of the impact of global change,” he said. “We are falling behind the capabilities of other nations while significantly constraining our domestic efforts to ensure sustainable water management.”

Famiglietti asked Congress to support these critical steps:

  • Funding for more realistic computer simulation models.
  • Support to help fill in fundamental knowledge gaps of surface and shallow subsurface conditions.
  • Support for key satellite research.

Famiglietti added, “Water is on a trajectory to rival energy in its importance in the United States, yet the investment in observations, models, and explorations of the subsurface pales in comparison. We have the potential to be world leaders in characterizing, monitoring, and predicting all aspects of the water environment, from forecasing droughts and floods to science-informed, technology-based, long-term sustainable water management. The vision and the technology are in place, and leadership in Congress is what will make it a reality.”

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Brian Clark Howard is an Environment Writer and Editor at National Geographic News. He previously served as an editor for TheDailyGreen.com and E/The Environmental Magazine, and has written for TheAtlantic.com, FastCompany.com, PopularMechanics.com, Yahoo!, MSN, Miller-McCune and elsewhere. He is the co-author of six books, including Geothermal HVACGreen Lighting and Build Your Own Small Wind Power System.