Deep Drought

Posted: August 23rd, 2011 under Climate Change, Mortality, photography, Plantlife, Water, Wildlife.
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Roughleaf dogwood & oak thicket in August 2011

East margin of creek woods–August 2011-leaves turning & dropping

Cactus Flat: even the prickly pear is drying out

We have been in the brown–the worst color-code for drought–for months.   We have not had regular (non flood-pulse) flow in the creek for over a year and it has been totally dry for months on our land, and dry at the sound end of town (perhaps a mile away)  for at least six weeks.    Thirty two years ago, when we first moved here, the creek never went dry at the south end, and most years puddles survived in the dryest months at our end, right up into this century.  Since 2003,  we have had completely dry creekbed–no puddles–for a period of every year, and an increasing length of time as well.   Since 2004, the creek has dried up completely at the south end.

So it’s not one summer of drought, but year after year of dry.

There is no natural water on the 80 acres.   Water for wildlife comes from the rainwater storage systems–the rainbarns and tanks–and it has not rained since we finished the third pavilion this year in June.  (It hadn’t rained before that, but the critical thing is–no rain has fallen for the tanks to collect.)  Thus wildlife find water only at Fox (north side), Owl (SW corner) or in our yard.   Stock tanks in everyone’s fields have gone dry.  The creek is dry above and below us.

Every morning we find the night’s tracks anywhere the dust is soft enough.

After seeing them every morning and comparing them to the tracks in a book, I can ID most of them: the raccoons, armadillos, opossums, foxes, coyotes, squirrels, rabbits, mice (not to species!), large insects, snakes, lizards, birds… many thirsty critters use our walking and tractor tracks as their highways and they use all the water sources heavily.

Every week, more leaves turn yellow, then brown, then fall.   Every week more trees and shrubs and grasses and forbs simply die.  There’s less food for wildlife.  There’s less cover.  And the relentless heat–day after day well over 100F–and lack of water take their toll.  Birds hunch in what shade they can find, beaks open, panting like dogs…right next to water.

It’s depressing to keep taking pictures of it–though it’s necessary because there are people who just don’t get it–so I’ll throw in some less dire images:

Two juvenile Painted Buntings (species of concern) perching above Owl Water.  In good years, a nest will produce four.

The large backyard water feature, designed for wildlife, allows dragonflies like this Common Green Darner, ovipositing on vegetation, to reproduce.  Many birds and mammals also use this larger resource, as well reptiles and amphibians (breeding population of leopard frogs and toads.)

With less rainfall, and longer gaps between rains, it’s become harder to calculate how to build rain barns and size storage to ensure that there will be water available even in prolonged dry spells.    The recommendation on one site was to have enough storage to handle 90 days without rain.   Initially, Fox Pavilion’s 600 gallons of storage, with a summer use of 5 gallons a day, was ample.  That’s 120 days without a refill, and the tanks fill with less than 3 inches of rain.  It was ample until this summer.   But the extreme heat this year has mean more than 5 gallons a day usage, and we have not had a substantial rain since May 12-13.   One of the 305 gallon tanks is empty; the other is very low.

Owl Pavilion is in better shape: it has 5000 gallons of storage–but it’s a bigger system and uses more water (it’s where I keep finding 5 or 6 deer.)

In hot weather we always check all the water every day.   Although Owl will hold some water for two days,  raccoons sometimes pull the pump out of the lower tank, or disturb the sides of the artificial stream so that it leaks and the pump runs dry.    Leaving that unwatched for a day is…not good.   Usually one of us walks the circuit just about sunrise, when it’s cooler; if we’re delayed, we’ll ride the lawn tractor out.

In the creek woods, elms, bois d’arc, and hackberries are dying, as well as understory shrubs like roughleaf dogwood.  We had a small remnant population of American elms, some slippery elms, and a lot of cedar elms.

Nearly all the trees we’ve planted in the last ten years have now died, including those planted the first year or so that seemed well-established.  Trees here when we bought the place have died.    Some of the introduced  native grasses have died.

And both near and long-term forecasts are still…dry.

EDIT NOTE:  I forgot to include the picture of the lovely western coachwhip, taken early one morning:

I’m quite happy to have Western Coachwhips on the place, although it’s hard to get a picture of a whole one, as they’re very long and nearly always stretched out.  If one end’s in focus, the middle and other end aren’t.

This particular snake was out in the west grass, and I walked up on it.  Later in the morning, it was engaged in hunting a rabbit when I startled it again and it fled for the fencerow.  Sorry…we have plenty of rabbits and the snake’s welcome to one.  Or more.


  • Comment by Karen — August 24, 2011 @ 7:52 am


    I live in the California southwest where we are a little better situated than you (this year) because we had a cold winter with lots of snow pack that’s slowly trickling down through our reservoirs, but I hate how much I know your pain. I think we have basically the same problem — increasingly unpredictable weather, increasingly unpredictable politicians (and hence skewed, for want of a better word) water use policies, and many, many too many people wanting water than the land can provide.

    I’ve visited places where the water runs in rivers year round and every time I fall in love with the color green.

    Meanwhile, I mourn your trees, hoping their roots may send up shoots when rain finally returns, and, strange as it may sound, pray that you will be hit by a small tropical storm. Soon.

  • Comment by elizabeth — August 24, 2011 @ 8:19 am


    It’s not strange to hope for a tropical system…we do that a lot. Unfortunately, the big strong high pressure system sitting right on us–as it has been for months–won’t let one near. Shoves them all one way or the other around us. I’m inclined to think (while knowing it’s not logical) it’s all the hot air coming out of Gov. Perry’s office and the state legislature.

  • Comment by Karen — August 24, 2011 @ 9:57 am


    Then can I just pray that the high pressure system lifts (with a tropical storm following promptly on its heels) without the rest of the country being exposed to Mr. Perry’s hot air? I’ve not heard much of it, but the bits I’ve heard have made me experience ample internal warming.

  • Comment by Elaine — August 28, 2011 @ 8:13 pm


    There is a Cape Verde system forming. Here’s hoping it steams up through Texas and keeps going. Oklahoma is not as dry as you are, but we are far beyond that piddly, little drought referred to as the Dustbowl. (Seriously, fortunately, we have better soil and water management methods today.)

  • Comment by Karen — August 28, 2011 @ 8:23 pm


    Among the things I find so infuriating about Mr. Perry’s statements (just the first of many, though perhaps I should have stated this earler) is his joint dismissal of humans’ role in climate change and the benefits that can be realized when the government steps in to make individuals and businesses responsible to improve conditions.

    You see, as a child living in the Los Angeles basin (then known as the smog capitol of the world), harsh restrictions were imposed on my parents, my state, and the businesses that supported it, to reduce air pollution. It was not before time. Los Angeles had a history of bad air from the time that records began to be taken (by some of the most eminent scholars in the world, including Einstein) of suffering periods when not only were astronomical observations restricted at Mt. Wilson, but public health officials noticed that childrens’s health was adversely affected by the “inversion layer”.

    By the time I can remember, we children were told to “play quietly indoors” more days than I could then count, and by kindergarten, we were released from school on a regular basis in September because hot winds from the desert caused smog to descend that our schools (as good as they were then) felt they could not overcome nature, as most lacked air conditioning and filtering devices.

    What Mr. Perry fails to understand is that, for California, the EPA’s harshest regulations were a Godsend. Even though they have yet to address greenhouse gasses to the same extent, by the time I entered high school (less than ten years!), the number of days that children at low risk of respiratory problems had reduced so substantially that Los Angeles wasn’t considered the smog capitol of the world (although we have not been so happy to concede the crown to countries that haven’t heeded our pain).

    The fact remains that, if smog could be conquered by a partnership (no matter how unwilling) between citizens, business, and government, I fail to understand why that precedents (among these, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, etc.) should be disregarded.

    When something demonstrably works, my view is that it should be given a chance to work again.

    And, while I believe that prayer demonstrably works, I do not believe that it can be commanded of God by those who will not take heed of his obvious warnings. To those, sad ungodly souls, I deny the name “Christian”, as Christ denied the “wolves” who came in “sheeps’ clothing.” Even Christ, facing death, said, “thy will be done.”

    But I know you know this. I add it only because our drought (as it does annually) increases, and your drought, as it should not, continues, and the voices who claim to speak for Christ seem to do everything but what I know Christ taught.

  • Comment by Karen — August 28, 2011 @ 8:32 pm


    I meant to say that “the number of days that children at low risk of respiratory problems had reduced so substantially that Los Angeles wasn’t considered the smog capitol of the world… decreased.”*

    *California still has a growing number of children with asthma and other respiratory diseases, but they are, at least no longer from leaded gas and its hazards.

  • Comment by elizabeth — August 28, 2011 @ 9:23 pm


    I’m hoping so too. Texas and Oklahoma are certainly the center of the big brown drought blob. You’re familiar with the national Drought Monitor, aren’t you?

  • Comment by Karen — August 29, 2011 @ 3:08 am


    I hadn’t seen that particular graphic (thanks for the resource!), though it fit my imagination of what’s going on in your state quite well.

    One problem I know climatologists are facing is the fact that most of their definitions of “drought” and “okay” are based on almanac data that may no longer be relevant with global warming increasing. For instance, my region of L.A. is “white” not because we’ve had rain (we haven’t had anything but drizzle since March and won’t until October, if we’re lucky) but because that fits the pattern for our area.

    But real climatologists aren’t paid for by private industry (despite the fascination of the Weather Channel) — they’re paid for by the National Weather Service, and, in this case, by the U.S.D.A. In other words, the government pays to help individuals, local and state governments plan to adjust resources and allocations in times of need. (And yes, though I’m sermonizing, I know you know this).

    I’d bet dollars to donuts that the reason the U.S.D.A. has a finger in this particular pie is specifically to prevent a repeat of the Dustbowl years.

    In other words, all those anti-gub’mint folks would rather have you dry up and blow away than give you the information the whole country needs to plan ways to keep you afloat (metaphorically).

    Thus it makes no sense to me, given that I’ve lived through environmental change for the better that would NOT have occurred without government action, and lived through droughts that would have rendered Los Angeles impotent to resist Somalia-like conditions without careful government water restrictions.

    So I can only hope your governor blows away on all his hot wind, and rain falls on your blighted trees.

  • Comment by Karen — September 6, 2011 @ 6:14 pm


    As a resident of the land of earthquake, fire and flood, my heart goes out to you and your neighbors. Wildfires are the threat that frightens me most.

    I hope I speak for all of my fellow Californians when I say that we will be there for you for the cleanup and rebuilding just as the rest of the country has been with us through so many natural disasters. There should be no politics when people are in danger.

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