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With so many visible strikes from natural disasters grabbing the headlines, the insidious nature of a drought makes it easy to overlook.

Unfortunately, there's no doubt drought conditions can be just as disastrous and they are quietly spreading through much of the nation West of the Mississippi.

Droughts are prolonged dry spells. That means there's less water to irrigate landscaping, hose down the driveway and rinse off the siding. At their worst, droughts can come with water rationing at home as a sober reminder not to take the wet stuff for granted.

Some Americans are already prepared because they always conserve water as a way of life. More and more of those who don't may soon not have a choice.

Here's why.

While portions of the nation's East Coast and Gulf Coast are bracing for a busier than normal wet and windy hurricane season, the April 10th U.S. Drought Monitor issued weekly by the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC) University of Nebraska at Lincoln, says persistent drought conditions in the southwest are spreading north and further west.

With the greatest areas of "severe" and "extreme" drought conditions confined largely to the U.S. southwest's Arizona-California-Nevada area (and to a lesser extent, areas in the High Plains), moderate drought conditions and abnormally dry areas also now include most of California and an area from New Mexico, Oregon, and the Canadian border at Montana and North Dakota -- including all of Hawaii and parts of Alaska.

With some portions of even the hurricane-ravaged southeast experiencing drier than normal conditions to extreme drought conditions, some 40 percent of the nation's land mass is wringing out to some degree, according to monitor maps.

What is drought?

Rather than rare or random, drought is a normal, but temporary aberration, unlike aridity -- a permanent condition of some climatic regions, such as deserts. Drought comes and it goes as a result of a precipitation deficiency over an extended period of time, typically a season or more, according to the NDMC.

However, scientists say, climate change can impact both the expanse of arid regions ( House Interior Home Exterior Home Inspection House Inspector Real Estate Expert Advice ) and the frequency, duration and depth of drought.

"Although we don't know how climate change will affect regional water resources, it is clear that water resources are already stressed, independent of climate change, and any additional stress from climate change or increased variability will only intensify the competition for water resources," reports NDMC in "Drought And Climate Change".

NDMC says even without climate change, drought is exacerbated by the increased demand for water and the way water is used and misused by humans. That includes population growth, increased competition for available water supplies, poor water quality, environmental claims, uncertain reserved water rights, groundwater overdraft, outmoded institutions and aging urban water infrastructure.

However, what humans take away they can also give.

Independent of reducing the fossil-fuel burning contributions to global warming and the resultant climatic change -- a condition most scientists say is caused, in part, by humans -- humans can make a difference simply by conserving the water they use.

Many conservation techniques do, however, reduce a dependence on using fossil fuels, say to heat water.

Fighting drought at home

The American Water Works Association says a better approach to water conversation is not reacting to drought conditions after they arrive, but making it a lifestyle with year round conservation efforts. That's because, given drought's human factors, conservation before the fact minimizes and helps avoid the impact of droughts.

One of the best places to start, is the award-winning H2ouse.org, the joint effort of the California Urban Water Conservation Council and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The website offers the "Top 5 Actions" to take to save water; a "Water Budget Calculator" that teaches you how to squeeze more out of each drop; a "Garden Guide" for inspirational irrigation; for kids of all ages, a Pac Man-like animated game, "WaterSense Test", designed to see if your conservation knowledge is, well, all wet; and a "Home Tour" to inspect your home for areas of water waste and conservation.

Meanwhile, those Top 5 ways to save most?

  • Plug leaks. As much as 10 percent of a household's water use is lost through leaks and it's not just indoor plumbing. Consider hiring a plumber or qualified inspector to give your plumbing system the once over.

    The water works association's "Water Wiser Drip Calculator" lets you measure and estimate how much water is wasted down the drain because of leaks.

  • Can your can. The toilet is one of the largest water users in your home and if your home was built before 1992 and the toilet has never been replaced, you probably have an inefficient flusher. Check the date stamp inside the toilet by lifting the lid and looking at the back of the toilet at the manufacturer's imprint of the make, model and date of manufacture. Where necessary, install water efficient 1.6 gallon-per-flush toilets. Some water districts will rebate you some or all of your costs.
  • Replace your clothes washer. Another big gulper, your clothes washer should be Energy Star-rated and have a "Water Factor" at or lower than 9.5, it should use 35-50 percent less water and 50 percent less energy per load. Both Energy Star and the Consortium for Energy Efficiency can point you to the most efficient models.
  • Design and plant appropriate landscaping. Select indigenous drought-tolerant plants and consider more natural landscaping or "wildscaping" including "Xeriscaping", the registered trademark for the Colorado WaterWise Council's approach to landscaping that reduces the need for water, maintenance and other resources.
  • Water only what your plants need. Most water wasted on landscaping is irrigating when it's not necessary or by not maintaining the irrigation system. Older and rickety irrigation systems can lose more than 50 percent of the water to leaks.

Where applicable, weather adjusting ET (for "evapotranspiration") irrigation controllers save water by automatically watering only when necessary, using irrigation controller timers with rain shutoff devices.

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