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Parched North America Gets a Deep Drink

Now experts seek how to forecast, prepare for drought periods

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NORTH America's long-playing drought is over. But drought scientists warn that its challenge remains.

They note that a year of abundant rains will not necessarily repair the damage that half a decade's parching has done to dried-out fields and forests. Moreover, there is no guarantee that the drought won't return soon.

What's needed, such experts say, is a thorough assessment of measures used to ease the effects of drought to learn what worked and what didn't work.

According to a study of the drought by the American Meteorological Society, while severe drought is largely unpredictable, it is an expectable part of normal climate. Strategic planning to cope with drought when it hits, "has the potential to ease the impacts of future droughts," the society's statement says.

Meteorologist Donald A. Wilhite of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln notes that around two dozen states already have contingency plans. He says it's also important to take a hard look at the mix of federal programs. "Did the whole [federal] system work?," he asks. "I think we'll find that it didn't."

Dr. Wilhite warns: "Unless we go back and look ... [to see] what we have learned ... the tendency is that, the next time we have a drought, we repeat the mistakes."

One of those "mistakes" is to assume that drought is "abnormal" weather that is ended when "normal" rains return. In those terms, drought is over in the United States, except for an area in the northwestern part of the country. (See map above.)

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