A half percent of hope in this year’s drought reports


“Let’s play a game,” a friend suggested last weekend as we walked through stands of brown, brittle trees on Stewart’s Creek trail to San Luis Peak in southwestern Colorado. The game was called “find the living tree,” and like “I spy,” we’d scan the landscape for green leaves.

We chuckled grimly. The truth she spoke in suggesting this made-up game was almost poetic, acknowledging both the despondency we all felt looking at the tinder-dry forest and our need to find something hopeful to cling to.

A field of Colorado's beetle-killed pines.

Hope, however, can be elusive. In this summer of continued drought with its stories of irrigation ditches turned off early in the season and wildfires burning an unprecedented acreage, I wanted to find something positive to report, some silver lining to all this serious gloom.

I thought I’d struck gold when I stumbled upon the National Drought Mitigation Center’s publically accessible Drought Impact Reporter. Since 2005, the Reporter, a tool of the University of Nebraska’s School of Natural Resources, has been collating reports of drought. The Drought Impact Reporter stores thousands of media reports, research publications, and citizen observations from across the United States. Each report is tagged with the type of impact observed. Together, these reports can offer a broad picture for researchers and policy-makers as they assess drought’s impact on such sectors as human health, the economy, water quality, and wildlife.

The National Drought Mitigation Center's Drought Impact Monitor displays reports of drought from around the country.

Like Yelp or Angie’s List, the Drought Impact Reporter collects public information published online as well as observations submitted by individuals. Each entry is tagged with keywords that describe the location, type, and dates of the impact, and whether the report includes any positive impacts.

I wanted to see what the Reporter had to say about drought in the West so far this year. Setting my search parameters to records from the 11 Western states since the beginning of 2013, I pulled up 974 reports. Forty-two percent pointed to the drought’s effect on water supply and quality. Four percent of the reports were related to the drought’s impact on tourism and recreation. When I refined the search to display only those reports with a positive spin, the Reporter delivered a mere five items - just 0.5 percent of the 974 reports. Still, it’s more than I’d expected to find. Here are a few of the results.

Bear River’s Carp are Dying

Two weeks ago, the Salt Lake Tribune described how managers at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge are struggling to support the habitat needed for thousands of birds that make their homes on the northwestern edge of the Great Salt Lake each year. This summer, they carefully diverted their meager water supplies to keep prime bird habitat healthy. The silver lining? Invasive carp don’t have enough water to survive.

Resort-Powered Firefighting

Budget cuts in the National Forest Service meant a significant cut to the number of firefighters working across the west this summer. Angel Fire resort, which borders the Carson National Forest in northern New Mexico, anticipated another severe fire season, so took the issues of funding into their own hands. In May, the resort started an account to support fire crews, donating ten percent of the resort’s opening weekend proceeds to the fund.

Dust-on-Snow in Colorado

HCN has written before about how dust-darkened snow absorbs more sunlight than clean, fresh powder, increasing the rate of snowmelt and compounding drought-related problems. 2013 was among the most significant dust-on-snow years recorded, and researchers expect that both drought and soil disturbance in the American Southwest are contributing factors. In the last paragraph of the grim report, they also report that the “calcium-rich dust has benefited the acidic, volcanic soils of the San Juans.”

Digging back a little further in the Drought Impact Monitor, a few individuals reported some of the minor side benefits they’ve seen from drought. In July 2012, one citizen from Yucca, CA reported that “with no rain there are no weeds to pull.” A few days earlier, another person from Larimer County, Colorado reported that though the drought had killed bushes and weakened hay, it also killed some of the hearty invasive plants. “Our cheat grass has died out completely and didn't even go to seed,” they wrote in June. “I never thought anything could kill leafy spurge or bind weed.”

These glimmers of hope don’t minimize the stories of devastating fires, images of dry river beds and observations of tree die-off. But perhaps they can be a landing point, however tenuous.

While we played “find a living tree” in the Gunnison National Forest, we walked along the series of beaver dams built on Stewarts Creek, beside meadows of yellow, purple, and red wildflowers, and through stands of quaking aspen. From the riverbed, the peaks around the valley looked like desolate rock piles, but as we neared the 14,014-foot peak, green, flowering ground cover grew in patches along the trail and wasps flickered across the stones.

Signs of life may not be obvious, or even overwhelming, but stop long enough to look, and you’ll find them. As the poet Wendell Berry suggests in his Mad Farmer’s Manifesto, “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.” When hiking through stands of beetle-killed pine, delight in the wildflowers and aspen. Take a hint from the Drought Impact Reporter and make a space for those few positive observations.

Katie Mast is an editorial intern at High Country News.

The Red Trees of Colorado. Image from Tanner S Jackson via Flickr.

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