In the West, drought is a native

 

"You have to get over the color green," wrote the late historian and novelist Wallace Stegner in Thoughts on a Dry Land, his treatise on living in the West.

I've remembered Stegner's words frequently this brown spring, as gusty winds smudge the air over my valley with clouds of dry soil. Green appears only along the shrunken streams, or where borrowed water irrigates lawns, parks and pastures.

Here in Colorado, we're in the third and most severe year of a dry period. The snowpack is way below half of average for this time of year; some streams in southern Colorado are at hundred-year lows.

The rest of the inland West is similarly parched. Parts of Montana and Wyoming are in their sixth year of drought, and governors of Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico have either declared states of emergency or asked for federal disaster-area designations.

The flurry of proclamations implies that these years of sparse precipitation constitute some kind of abnormal emergency, an unpredictable disaster. Wrong.

Drought lives in these sere landscapes. Dry years are a normal part of the climate west of the 98th Meridian. That's the line that roughly marks the boundary between the Midwest, where annual rainfall averages more than 20 inches a year, and the West, where precipitation drops below the amount needed to sustain crops and lawns without irrigation.

Climate records show that Colorado has weathered six drought cycles -- including the current one -- since record keeping began in 1893. Meteorologists label 36 of the past 109 years as dry, an average of one dry year in every three.

Yet we live as if green were the normal color here, as if there will always be sufficient water to wash our cars, water our lawns, irrigate our crops and pastures, flush our toilets, brew our beer, fill our swimming pools, cool our power-plant generators. When a drought comes, we cry "Disaster!" and hold out our hands for federal assistance.

Perhaps the problem lies in our understanding of what average annual precipitation means. An average annual precipitation of 10 inches, for instance, is not a promise that 10 inches of moisture will fall every year.

"Average" in this case, is the statistical mean, a figure obtained by totaling the precipitation amounts from a period of years, then dividing that sum by the number of years in the period. The figure obtained is simply a mid-point in a range; it is just as "normal" to receive five inches of precipitation as it is to receive 12.

Or perhaps the problem lies in our continuing belief in that most optimistic of Western boosterisms, "rain follows the plow." Wrong again, both literally and metaphorically.

Drought is native here, though we can make it worse and more frequent by our activities. Bare soil feeds drought, as farmers on the Western Great Plains discovered in the Dust Bowl. Solar energy quickly evaporates the moisture from bare ground. Rainfall depends in part on how much water passing clouds can draw from the soil; without that stored moisture, a dome of dry air forms over the landscape, repelling rain-bearing fronts.

It seems that we haven't learned how to inhabit dry country. We see it through green-tinted lenses, imposing customs and practices developed for landscapes where rain is both more predictable and more abundant.

When the wind blows in my town, a veil of grit appears on my door and windowsills, a gift of the formerly vacant industrial property across the alley where my husband and I are building our new house.

As I wipe up each day's deposit, I remind myself that this is my fault: It was the construction for my house that powdered the soil to dust, and I'm the one who didn't get it seeded last fall. Even though I know better, I counted on winter snow and spring moisture to hold fast the dirt.

Now, watching the grit from my yard-to-be slide along the window, I wonder if I'm feeling what farmers might have felt during the Dust Bowl, this combination of guilt and frustration because of what I unwittingly set in motion.

"Getting over the color green" means abandoning our preconceptions and learning to live in the arid West as it is, not as we imagine it should be. We will belong here only when we understand that spring means grit and wind, just as it does green and rain.

 

Susan J. Tweit is a naturalist and author of several books, and resides in Salida, Colorado.

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Susan Tweit

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