How Dry We Are

Like overpopulation, drought is one of those crises that sneak up on you. Earthquakes, wildfires, pandemics announce their arrival like comets in the sky and are all but impossible to ignore or disparage. But when you live somewhere like Albuquerque, which averages less than 10 inches of precipitation a year, or Las Vegas, which gets just four inches on average, it takes a while to notice that it’s just not raining at all. And so we’re just now waking up to the sad fact that the Southwest is 20 years into a historic dry spell.

It’s not as though we haven’t been warned. In Lake Mead and Lake Powell we have pluviometers large enough to be visible from space. And year by year we’ve been able to see the ugly bathtub ring around these giant reservoirs inexorably widening as the water level drops. Now, the gauge is dropping from critical to catastrophic. Lake Mead is at just 28 percent of capacity and Lake Powell at 27 percent, the lowest levels since the dams were completed that created those lakes.

That’s grim news not just for the 40 million people who depend on the Colorado River for their drinking water but for all 330 million of us. Three-quarters of the river’s water irrigates crops, including California’s Central Valley, the source of a quarter of the nation’s vegetables.

The Rainbow Sign

Whether the Southwest is in the worst drought in a generation, a century or a millenium, it’s no surprise that we’re also in the worst fire season in at least a decade. The National Interagency Fire Center has the dismal numbers as well as an interactive map. So far this year 29,827 wildfires have burned 2,7 million acres, well above the 10-year average of 23,070 fires over 1.1 million acres.

The photo is by the Albuquerque Journal’s Eddie Moore, part of that paper’s photo coverage of the devastating Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon blaze. New Mexico’s largest recorded wildfire, that conflagration has charred more than 325,000 acres since April 6 and is still only 70% contained.

While Calf Canyon is attributed to a pile burn “sleeper” or “holdover” fire that smouldered under the snow since January, Hermits Peak was a Forest Service prescribed burn that was blown out of control by unexpected high winds. But ultimately both these fires and the others burning across the West can be blamed on decades of misguided forestry.

It’s ironic (and perhaps prophetic) that the FS is flying the “Pride Flag” this month, since the rainbow banner doesn’t just celebrate diversity but also recalls the divine promise in an old spiritual:

God gave Moses the rainbow sign
No more water, but fire next time

How Dry We Are

In my previous post my reference to “bone dry” New Mexico was so offhand as to make me pause and think again. New Mexico and the whole Southwest have been so dry for so long as to be a new normal. Every year is the worst fire season, every month the hottest since (fill in the date), every decade the driest.

But just how dry is it? Drought.gov gives what appears to be an accurate picture. The map above appears to support the claim that we’re well into the worst drought in more than a millenium.

Bear Trap Canyon

As of this weekend, the Bear Trap Fire was judged 98 percent contained after burning over 38,000 acres, according to the Forest Service. There are still much worse fires burning in New Mexico, including a 287,000 acre blaze in the nearby Black Range and the catastrophic Hermit’s Peak fire in the Sangre de Cristos. But the Bear Trap fire was painfully personal for me because that canyon in the San Mateos has been one of my favorite campsites for better than 30 years. The above picture was taken four or five years ago. Sad to think what it looks like today.

Air Force to the Rescue

A “Lost in the Woods” story with a happy ending, thanks to the U.S. Air Force. No photo credit or byline on the dramatic picture and story in the Mojave News, although both deserved one. What’s really impressive is the amount of government resources from county sheriff, NPS and Air Force put at the disposal of some young woman with an injured ankle. I’m amazed at the tech advances of recent years and the accompanying cultural changes. Back when I was in my 20s, if one of us had injured an ankle while hiking with three buddies it would never have occurred to us to call for government assistance and wait for rescue. The casualty would have been expected to cowboy up and make it back to the trailhead with the help of his friends.

R.I.P. P.J.

As the Boomers stumble off into the sunset we see more and more familiar names in the obits that bring a pang of regret. P.J. O’Rourke was one of the greats of 20th Century journalism, and his voice will be sorely missed. Looking over my bookshelf I see that I have only Give War a Chance remaining. The rest I passed on to friends and relatives in the hope that O’Rourke’s wicked wit would entice them into reassessing their own views on the state of the world. He was the late century match for H.L.Mencken.

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