The Hawk Ball Returns

Tie down your hats and get ready to duck—the Mississippi kites have returned for the summer.

Tuesday evening I ventured out for a stroll. It wasn’t too smokey, or too hot, and clouds masked the worst of the evening sun. The park was full of kids doing kid stuff, people with dogs, and activity in general. I happened to see a pair, then trio, of birds riding thermals or wind currents. I couldn’t tell if they were hawks or our buzzards. (There is a buzzard rookery in one of the old, high-dollar neighborhoods. The folks there don’t like the buzzards*, but can’t get rid of them, either. The rest of us just make sympathetic noises.)

As the birds came closer, I could see that they were raptors. They passed overhead and I aw the distinctive pale heads and darker bodies of male Mississippi kites. two males, one female, soared over. I grinned and followed, since that’s where the sidewalk went anyway. Soon more and more kites rode the evening wind. I stopped to count, and identified ten. After a moment I meandered on my way.

A few minutes later, more motion caught my eye, and I counted fifteen birds in a loose group, rising and falling on the evening wind as they traveled south-southeast. They will return to roost around the park, in a few other trees, and to take advantage of the locusts and other insects that thrive in early summer. Spring officially arrives with the kites. They will depart in August or early September, moving into more food-rich climes.

*When I was at Flat State U, some migrating buzzards decided to rest on the roof peaks of some garden apartments. This led to irate calls to Animal Control. It seems that the apartments were part of a Senior Living Facility, and the residents did NOT like having buzzards watching them, loitering and lurking. The buzzards departed the next day.

“…By clear shining after rain.”

A re-run. I’m in the throes (throws?) of concert prep and writing.

An unexpected shower bustled through Wednesday morning, leaving fresh-washed air and a beautiful sunrise, sweet with the perfume of local grasses. It reminded me of one of my favorite Randall Thompson compositions, which quotes King David (Samuel 23:1) talking about a just ruler and the blessings that brings to the people and the land.

Continue reading

Removing Dams: The Good, the Bad, and the Messy

“Set the river free” is a cry heard more and more often. It started in New England, when old, unused water diversions and containment structures were removed, often for good reasons, from smaller streams. The goal was to let the stream or river return to as close to original as possible, or to prevent a dam failure and the subsequent floods and damage. If the thing doesn’t serve a purpose, and might even have become a hazard, why not take it out? And again, in some cases, it made good sense. In other cases people took sediment samples from behind the dam and said, “Hold up a second! We don’t want this in the river.” And so the dam stays for now.

However, there’s a difference between a little mill-dam or a small diversion on a stream in what has reverted to forest, and a good-sized power dam, or flood control structure. And you can’t just “rip it out and let the river heal.” Depending on the dam, the river, and what’s down stream, that can lead to disaster, at least for the very aquatic life that people are trying to save/reintroduce.

So, a quick primer on what happens behind the dam when the water flow is greatly slowed or stopped. A large puddle forms, growing into a pond or lake. If the river carries lots of sediment (silt, sand), then the heaviest of that begins to settle out into the bottom of the lake. As the lake fills, the weight on the ground increases, as does pressure on the dam and the sides of the lake. If excitement is going to happen, this is when the first signs appear (Teton Dam is the horrible warning). A little seepage is pretty common, and should be clear. If muddy water starts appearing on the wrong side of the dam, then Things Need to Be Done. If all goes as planned, a lake fills in behind the dam. Hydropower dams use the pressure of that water to turn turbines that generate electricity, so they are always releasing water, or do so intermittently to meet peak demand. Irrigation dams draw-down water levels in the dry season for farmers to use, then allow levels to rise again in the wet. Recreational dams hold water at all times, unless there is a compelling reason to release water (controlled flooding as opposed to uncontrolled “it ate the dam!!!” flooding. See Johnstown for the horrible warning.)

Over time, if the stream carries enough silt, the lake might just turn into a mudflat with a waterfall on one end. That is very, very rare, at least in the modern era. You can see it with ancient structures in Arabia and a few other places. Eventually the dam wears away and you have to look very carefully to see that a water control structure ever existed. Most modern US dams have a life-time of about a century or so before something needs to be done about the silt, it silt deposition is a problem. Something like Hoover Dam or Glen Canyon? Not such a problem.

So, let’s say you want to tear out a mill-dam on a rocky stream that never had much sediment. You do a core check of what’s behind the dam, find nothing toxic and no huge slugs of sediment, and decide to get rid of the structure. Some sludge and gunk will flow downstream, so ideally you allow a slow release and everything keeps going until the sediment reaches the sea (or the next lake downstream) and you have a nicely restored river. You are happy, the land owners are happy, and the fish are happy. Good deal.

However, let’s say you look at a dam downstream of an industrial area. It needs to go. So you take a core of the yards’-deep sediment behind the dam and Whhoooooooah Nellie! Arsenic, dyes, lead enough to rearm the Ottoman Empire, and a few other things have accumulated. Do you really want that going downstream and settling all over the stream? Probably not. The better thing to do is to lower the dam, allowing increased flow-through but still keeping that “stuff” penned up and out of circulation until someone decides they want to pay for the removal and remediation.

So, what if there’s been no, zip, nada industrial development in the area, ever. Your core comes out clean, but full of sticky, silty, sludge. The flow in the stream is not what it used to be, for a number of reasons. If you rip out the dam, it will take a very, very long time for that material to get through the stream. Most likely, the stream will aggrade, getting shallower and wider, leaving the sediment over the current bed. It can also cause the shallower water to be warmer for a while, until the balance starts to return after more sediment is carried downstream. If you have really good trout fishing downstream, this is probably not the scenario you want. Now you start talking about dredging out the stuff, taking it somewhere else, and then opening the dam after the water settles again. $$$,$$$,$$$.00 can be involved.

So, OK, what if we just rip out Hoover, or Grand Coulee? Well, first, where is that electricity going to come from? Nuclear is the only close replacement, because wind and solar are not going to work. Second, that will be an enormous slug of very, very cold water racing down the Colorado River valley and taking a lot of stuff with it. Like downstream dams and diversions. Like any water-supply intakes. The fish will be in for a surprise with that temp, although the modern Colorado is far colder than it once was. And eventually the sediment will start to move, slowly, and you will get back to closer to the old Colorado, brown, wild or sluggish, and meandering. If you get/got drinking water from downstream of Hoover, well, buy a lot of filters and plan on changing them regularly. And get ready for floods, as the bed, once scoured, starts to rebuild with that sediment.

Did I mention floods? Annual or semi-annual floods will return. Any valuable infrastructure will have to be relocated, or turned sacrificial. You’re going to lose habitat for some creatures and gain it for others. Given the sediment that’s built up behind the dams of the 1910s-1950s, anything that needs a rocky bed with well-oxygenated water might have difficulty for a while, depending on how quickly the sediment is redistributed and filtered out as the balance in the stream resumes.

Note: All these are controlled removals. Nightmare fuel is if one of the big dams on the Colorado goes all at once, because then the downstream dams will likely go as well. The Colorado will reach the sea again, perhaps by a different route. Or it might refill the Salton Sea and a few other areas, then head out via LA or even double back and then go out to Baja. The loss of life would be tremendous, the loss of infrastructure eve more so.

So dam removal can be done, and done right. However, “rewilding the Columbia and the Colorado!” is probably an undertaking best left to fiction writers for now. Until nuclear reactors become far more common, and we know a lot more about what’s behind those structures and how to release the contents slowly, we could do far more harm to the environment than we ever did by building the dam.

Spring/Winter Skies

Texas, and the attached parts of North America, had a little weather last week. I believe this is called “spring.” It started with temperatures in the 80s F on Sunday, then colder weather on Monday, a thunderstorm on one side of town that became snow. The other side of town got drenched with training thunderstorms for a few hours, then snow. Come Tuesday morning, six inches of very heavy, wet snow covered everything. The temperature was 33F. Work started late, and the roads were mildly interesting because of the slush under the snow.

The heavy overcast had begun breaking up even before dawn, revealing glimpses of dark, almost glowing blue through the rents and tears in the grey-brown clouds. The sun shone down by afternoon, causing grumbling among those who didn’t bring dark glasses. Wednesday? Howling north winds, colder, and signs and buildings fall over in the 50-60 MPH winds.

Come Thursday, everyone was ready for a break. The skies . . . For a few hours, a field of spotty snow-virga and rain-virga, as well as real snow and rain showers, swept down from the north. Calm air predominated, then a gust of wind from the collapsing showers would rush past, chased by bits of rain and snow. The clouds bubbled on top, with grey, flat bottoms trailing blue-grey sweeps of moisture across the land. They drifted over the snow-draped land, white below, grey between, and white and crisp turquoise above. A few very high ice-clouds feathered over from west to east. In the gaps between the showers, you could see forever, or at least to the edge of the higher ground.

A few birds had ventured out, including a sharp-shinned hawk that dove and rose on the wind whirls, hunting for mice and foolish young rabbits in the pastures and lake-fringe. A meadowlark reminded everyone who owned the land, while a killdeer darted across the road. The doves stayed low, trying to be invisible as an even larger raptor cruised overhead.

Veils and sweeps of light and shadow, sun and rain/snow, passed across the plains. To say that they looked a bit like opaque jellyfish doesn’t do the beauty justice. I’ve never seen anything quite like that here. Bigger storms, yes, and virga yes, but not like that, tiny snow and rain showers quietly sailing down the land.

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When the Wind Goes Still

Quiet. That is the first thing you notice is the quiet. It wasn’t the “calm before the storm” sort of tense, waiting quiet that you feel with thunderstorms, the tension in the air before the deluge. No, this was just an evening without the constant sound of traffic. It was a Sunday evening, which tends to be pretty subdued in my part of town, at least when it isn’t cook-out season. I went strolling to take advantage of the chilly but not windy weather, and because I’d been in my office most of the day, working on Day Job things.

Even the usual dogs kept their thoughts to themselves. A few birds cheeped or complained, but they too seemed subdued. The presence of the Cooper’s hawk watching the world from atop one of the larger trees might have encouraged avian reticence. Soccer practice had wrapped up at the school park, and softball season was yet to begin. A dog walker hurried past, stretching her legs to keep up with an eager grey mixed-breed and we waved but didn’t “howdy.” She needed all her breath for trotting.

The sky faded from daytime blue to a subdued twilight blue grey. Quiet filled the air. The dull roar of traffic, blown in by the wind from a highway or the cross-street that marks the edge of “my” territory, remained away. Instead I heard the sound of my steps, when I chose to make sound, the tap of my walking cane on the pavement, and the occasional brush of my jacket sleeve against my side. The faintest hum of vehicles intruded, far softer than I am accustomed to. It isn’t until the wind stops that you realize how much traffic noise intrudes into a “quiet” neighborhood. That evening was one of those times I remembered.

Snow produces silence, a heavy hush. Snow eats sound, devouring it, muffling the world. On very rare occasions, a soft east wind will blow under a heavy overcast, bringing the sound of chimes from a church. Not that evening. Only stillness, the absence of tree noises, the lack of traffic sounds, the resting silence of animals and birds. Snow quiet . . . has a weight to it, encouraging contemplation and lowered voices. The first scrape of a snow-shovel seems an intrusion of sorts, requiring an apology for disturbing the hush. This evening was not that sort of quiet.

By the time I turned toward home, the first evening stars had faded into view. Orion glittered down from the peak of the sky. The seasons turned, for good or ill, and spring would began creeping up on the land. I stopped in the front yard, savoring the stillness, and saluted Orion. He’s my touchstone, my year marker. When everything else goes off-kilter, Orion still rises, distant and serene, chasing the Seven Sisters and Taurus across the sky, his two dogs close behind. A dog barked, the polite woofs of warning from a well-drained home guard. Quiet returned.

I went in to supper.

Playa Lake 101

A re-post from 2018.

My long-time readers will recall that last year I was following a local playa lake over the course of the seasons. I’m still doing that, but it has been so dry that the view has not really changed, at least from the place where I take pictures. Unless you really know what to look for, all you see is swaths of brown stuff with slightly enlarging or contracting patches of green stuff. Not really gripping blog fodder.

So I thought I’d go back to what a playa is, on the off-chance we get more precipitation and water actually, you know, shows up in the lakebed. Continue reading

Natural History Writing

A good natural history book is a joy to read. They seem to be growing scarcer, alas, although it might just be that there are so many books out these days that winnowing “natural history” from “environmental dirge” from “pop-science” from “local writer writing about local birds” has grown far more difficult. But when I find a good natural history, it is such a treasure.

What is natural history? I know it when I read it. OK, beyond that, it is a study of a place over time, one that looks at everything from the dirt and rocks to the birds, plants, waters, land-use, and weather of a generally small bit of of the world. When you finish reading, you know the critters, flowers, trees, grasses, soils, and story of the land – sort of a biography of place, with a dollop of science. The first of these that is fairly well known in English is Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne. Selborne was the parish where White was minister for many years. The book was published in 1789, and is still in print. White described the place through the seasons, what grew there and why, and so on. Pliney and other ancient and Renaissance writers had done descriptions of places and critters, but no one had written a popular study of one small corner of the world.

White inspired a lot of other writers, some talented amateurs, some professionals, some a little of both. Aldo Leopold was a forest ranger with a gift for writing, and his Sand County Almanac and other essay collections are magnificent depictions of places, and meditations on “nature” and “Wilderness” and what those ideas mean for people and critters.

So, what’s the difference between environmental history (my bailiwick) and natural history? Environmental history is more academic, meaning it has all the things that are required of academic writing (footnotes/endnotes, historiography, formal introduction and conclusion with certain elements in them). Environmental history often includes a lot about people, government policies, laws and how they were applied (or were not), corporate history, you know, paperwork stuff. And they tend to cover more ground. A natural history of Cheyenne Bottoms in Kansas, for example, only talks about that particular place. It doesn’t go into discussions of federal and state wetland policies and how they changed over time, except as they related directly to the wetland, and then only one chapter at the end of the work. Instead, it starts with the geology, then the mud, the cattails and other things that root in the mud, the fish and bugs and amphibians, and works up to the raptors and other birds that live in and around the wetland.

I’ve tried my hand at writing a few natural history type things. I’m not good enough, and I don’t know enough to do a good job. Natural Histories are love songs. Environmental histories are ballads.

Egregiously Low Wind Chills are Egregious

So, there I was, walking around the street corner, minding my own business, when SumWind* slapped my face and took the air out of my lungs!

OK, yes, it is January, and cold fronts are one of those things that tend to happen on a regular, or at least frequent, basis. They happen most often when someone in Canada leaves a gate open, or fails to fix the wire on the barbed-wire fence and Arctic air comes racing down the eastern slope of the Rockies. The day had been cool but not too bad for January, with a slight wind chill but nothing really impressive. However, when I left St. Angus in the Grass School, I could see grey and blue massing on the northern horizon. The southern sky remained clear. A light southerly breeze stirred the air, as chilly as you’d expect when the air temperature is 45 F. Those grey clouds, though . . .

High clouds had oozed in by sunset. The wind settled, taking a rest. Without much moisture in the air, the temperature began easing downward, so I opted to take a quick walk. Maybe it would help open my sinuses, or at least stir the blood a little. I headed south, well bundled in heavy jacket, fleece hat, good gloves, and corduroy pants. Trot, trot, I stretched my legs as much as by impaired breathing would permit. The sunset turned grey, no color to speak of despite the ice-clouds in the air. The sun just set, and I could see an evening star shining through the veil overhead. A bit of south wind stung my cheeks, but nothing really bad.

About the time I changed course, starting my return leg toward RedQuarters, the wind switched, and switched hard. Ice slapped my face, driving the air out of my lungs, or so it felt. The wind cut, slicing through corduroy and leather. Breathing made my mouth ache a little, and stung my nose. (The temperature was starting to drop rapidly. It fell 5 degrees F in the 20 minutes between when I left and when I returned.) Dang! I picked up the pace as best I could. Breathing took work, in part because of my head cold, in part from the hard wind and cold.

It’s been a while since I’ve felt that sensation. The last time was when I walked out into -30F wind chills from a 35 F “heated” garage. Ow. Even if you are expecting it, the shock gets your attention. When you’re not expecting it? Big surprise. Yes, by northern standards it’s a mild inconveninece, and yes we get worse down here. But the surprise got me.

*The atmospheric version of Sumdood, the nefarious villain who lurks around street corners, lying in wait for people who are otherwise minding their own business, doing nothing at all.

Interstate Water Treaties, or “Here We Go Again”

Nebraska is invoking a 1923 treaty with Colorado to build a canal and outmaneuver Colorado on the South Platte River. It’s been a while since an interstate water fight made the news, and I can hear water lawyers on all sides organizing papers and smiling at the prospect of a fight. After all, whisky is for drinking but water’s for fighting over.

My first thought when I heard the news was to grin a little, because Colorado has some water policies that make me roll my eyes, especially policies pertaining to the South Platte River. Among other things, the state banned the collection of rainwater runoff by private individuals (no cistern at the end of your downspout) on the grounds that if too many people did it too well, it would affect in-stream flow on the South Platte and violate the river compact. Translated into normal English, if people collected the rainwater, there wouldn’t be enough run-off into the river. The quantity of water would drop below the minimum required by law. That minimum has to go to Nebraska, or else, unless there is a drought or other 100% non-man-made event in progress. Even water lawyers can’t make rain where rain doesn’t want to fall.

An interstate compact is a treaty. It must be ratified by the US Senate, just like any other treaty. Most of the interstate compacts I know of are about water, dividing up the flow of rivers, or discussing quality. The goal of a river compact is to keep, oh, Texas from sending the Guard into NM and doing in a dam, or suing for $$$ in lost income and property if the upstream state dries up the river. The Colorado River (of the West) is probably the most famous of these compacts, and one of the most litigated streams in interstate water law. The Pecos River and Rio Grande are not far behind, then the South Platte, and some rivers in Wyoming. A quick skim of the list shows that most of the compacts involving rivers from west of the 100th Meridian are about in-stream flow, and protecting downstream users from upstream excess usage. Mexico is also a party to some Compacts, notably on the Rio Grande and Colorado.

The first official compacts over in-stream flow date to the 1920s, when irrigation got better and litigation more common. What had been local (except in NM and CO) became a state matter. It’s one thing for Garden City, KS to complain about a lack of water in the Arkansas River. It’s another for Kansas to sue Colorado in federal court. Also, the surge in dam and irrigation-project construction in the 1910s and 1920s led to a surge in lawsuits. Thus the compacts. Some are just quantity, others are quality as well as quantity.

As long as people use water from rivers, or use groundwater that affects rivers, others will watch with beady eyes. “I’d rather be at the head of a ditch with a shovel than at the end of the ditch with a decree.” “Whisky’s for drinking, water’s for fighting over.” “The boy at the spring controls the stream.” [Ein Knabe am Quelle controliert den Fluß.]

It’s been a while since an interstate water compact bobbed up in court. The last time, it was TX and OK vs the US government over control of the banks of the Red River. There’s nothing like the Feds sticking an oar into things to get the states to drop other fights. Now it’s Nebraska making waves, and Colorado backpedaling, at least for the moment.

I encourage you to read the compact for yourself. River compacts are some of the clearest of legal documents, not that it prevents lawyers from muddying the waters. The University of Colorado law school has a water law specialty. Other states have something similar, at least those where “prior appropriation” is the rule for water apportionment.

The Sound of Almost Silence

The Air Quality regulations at Redquarters require that certain activities involving solvents, epoxies, lacquers, and model-aircraft glue must be done out of doors, or in the garage with the doors open. Since the afternoon was windless (!) for the first time in . . . a while, with temperatures between “tolerable” and “quite pleasant in the sun,” I did my chore on the back porch.

High clouds softened the late afternoon sun, still well south of west. The little bit of moving air had gone still. No dead leaves moved, no breeze stirred. The absence of wind sounds caught my ear. Without wind, traffic noises do not carry as far during the day, so silence reigned. The constant hum vanished. The last time I heard such quiet was at night after a snow storm had passed. To hear it by daylight . . .

A female cardinal chastised me from the branches of the neighbor’s overgrown holly, then lapsed into quiet, duty done. A different bird with an unfamiliar call responded across the alley. It had a harsh almost-trill, and I didn’t stop work to turn and identify it. Otherwise no birds moved, none called, and silence filled the air. Perhaps a hawk lingered in the area. Perhaps the doves and robins had selected a different neighborhood to plunder of worms and nut-meats and birdseed.

Just before five, as I packed up my tools, conjunto music erupted from a block or so away. Someone had finished work for the day, probably the plumbers or other trades working on a remodel. I’ve walked past the house several times on my evening strolls. Apparently the 70+ year old house needed a lot of work, or the new owners decided to do everything that they wanted all at once and get it over with. The crews tend to stop work around five, and that day was no exception, based on the direction of the music. I heard a few verses, the song changed, then car doors slammed and quiet returned.

You get so used to the background noises of traffic, dog barks, bird chirps and screams, and wind that it’s easy to forget the area can be quiet.