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Tuesday, May 20

Megadrought: Ari LeVaux had me at "Hello"

Ari LeVaux is a food columnist based in Placitas, New Mexico and a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. One day in 2012 he sat down and wrote an article about water scarcity in his own neighborhood, what it was doing to the people there, how they were reacting.  The writing did what all the world's climate scientists, environmentalists and global warming activists had never managed: caused me consider that it just might be late in my country's day.

The reports on drought I've posted on this blog in recent days were gathered because I stumbled across Ari's story in 2013, and my interest in silvopasturing is also a direct result of my reading it. So I think it's fitting that to round out my series on drought I post his writing:

Megadrought, the new normal
by Ari LeVaux
July 27, 2012
Writers on the Range, High Country News

In a dirt parking lot near Many Farms, Arizona., a Navajo farmer sold me a mutton burrito. He hasn't used his tractor in two years, he told me; he has to cook instead of farm because "there isn't any water." He pointed east at the Chuska Mountains, which straddle the New Mexico border. In a normal year, water coming off those mountains reaches his fields, he said. No more.

His experience might just be the new normal for the American Southwest, writes William deBuys in his book, A Great Aridness. It was published late last year, months after one of the Southwest's driest summers in recorded history, during which fires of unprecedented size scorched hundreds of thousands of acres of forest.

This summer is even worse; forest fires have already broken last year's records. Springs, wells and irrigation ditches are bone-dry. Farms are withering. We've all heard the gloomy scenarios of global warming: extreme weather, drought, famine, the breakdown of society. My current perch in Placitas, N.M., feels like a front-row seat at the apocalypse.

Yet deBuys says we don't really know if the current drought in the Southwest is a consequence of global warming. Periodic, decades-long droughts have been relatively common in the last few thousand years, according to analysis of dried lakebeds. Most of the area's famously collapsed civilizations -- Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde, the Galisteo pueblos -- are thought to have died out for lack of water in these extended dry periods, which deBuys calls "megadroughts."

By contrast, the last century's human population growth in the American Southwest occurred during a relatively wet period in the climactic record. We were due for another megadrought sooner or later, deBuys says, though climate change could make that dry event come sooner.

In the Sandia Mountains above Placitas, last winter's snowpack was relatively high. But the spring runoff never came because the snow evaporated straight into the air during the hottest spring on record. Lynn Montgomery has been farming in Placitas for more than 40 years. Like many farmers in northern New Mexico, he irrigates his land with water from an acequia, a type of canal system implemented by Spaniards, who'd adopted the technique from the Moors. This year, for the second year in a row, Montgomery's acequia has run dry. Last year, summer rains came in time to save his crops, but this year they haven't come.

First to go were the young Italian prune trees. His more established pear trees were next. Now, his decades-old grape vines are dropping their fruit and clinging to their lives. The 30-year-old asparagus patch is toast, as are the perennial herbs, garlic and strawberries. Even the weeds are dead.

The farm was part of a thriving community in the 1960s and '70s. Then people gradually left; Montgomery was the last man standing. He sold the farm to the local Pueblo Indian tribe, on the condition that they assume ownership after his death. He spent the proceeds paying lawyers to enforce water law around Placitas, managing to stop several developments that would have tapped the fragile aquifer.

Despite his successes, many wells were drilled, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, dropping the water table to the point at which many springs in Placitas began running dry, along with the acequias they feed.

Montgomery's neighbors, with the turn of a tap, can still water their grass and wash their cars, thanks to the wells that killed the spring that feeds his acequia. But it's only a matter of time, he told me, until they feel his pain –– literally.

Harold Trujillo is member of an acequia near Mora, N.M. All the acequias in his Sangre de Cristo mountain valley, near the headwaters of the Pecos River, are dry, he told me. Before this year, the worst he remembered was 2002, which, according to the Colorado state engineer's office, was the region's driest year in the last 300.

"In 2002, there were natural ponds that never dried up. Cows could drink out of them. Now those ponds are dry. People have been digging them deeper with backhoes to get them to fill with water," Trujillo said.

Tempers are also getting short. Trujillo said he was verbally threatened last weekend at Morphy Lake, the reservoir his acequia association helped build, by people wanting more water released now.

Meanwhile, Lynn Montgomery is retooling his farm. He's installed a holding tank, in which he'll be able to store precious acequia flow in future years, before it goes dry again. And he's switching from traditional flood irrigation, the way it's always been done in Placitas, to more efficient drip tape. Perhaps ingenuity and resilience will help him cope with the new normal.

Megadroughts are a regular feature of the Earth's climate. They are generally more likely during cold periods than warm periods because there is less water vapor in the atmosphere when the planet is cold. The well-established geological rule is, warm/wet, cold/dry.

LeVaus is living is a desert. The main deserts on Earth lie around 30 N and 30 S and 90 N and 90 S. The wet zones are at the Equator and 60 N and 60 S. This is determined by the general circulation of the atmosphere which is set by the Earth's rotation and inclination (and the Navier-Stokies equations in a rotating frame). So, if you want to live in a desert, you have to adapt your activities to it. And you have to realize that sometimes you just have to move out. Ask the Anasazi.

The people now living there are using fossil water laid down during the last ice age, when the air circulation was modified by the great ice sheets. Eventually it goes away, and the modern life style goes with it.

The North American Water Plan (never implemented) would have transferred water from the wet zones in Canada to the American Southwest. That would have been a reasonable permanent solution to the permanent drought conditions in the Southwest.

An economist will tell you that farming in the Southwest is a waste of water because the crops have low value-added. He would recommend that the Southwest industrialize, and that the farmers move back to Ohio, where water is cheap and plentiful.
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