Autumn’s Coin

The sun shone through gold leaves and brown on Saturday afternoon. Huge tan platters, slightly curved inward, rustled and skittered down from the sweet-gum tree outside my office. It sheds bark first, then large leaves that catch the wind and rustle and dance across the yards when the wind is right.

The light has shifted, slanted and clear. Summer’s smoke and dust have faded away, leaving sunlight with an edge and a golden cast to it. Or is it the gold and yellow and tan and crimson in the leaves that tint the passing light? We’ve entered the season of weakening sun. I can go outdoors bare headed and in short sleeves and not crisp. Oh, I’ll still burn if I’m not careful, but not instantly. The light and milder heat feel good in the crisp air. The sun blesses instead of punishes. It provides energy, encourages hurry—harvest is ready, now is the time, the fields are golden and the late fruits are ripe. Gather what you can, while you can, in the fat weeks and months before winter.

Not everyone loves the falling leaves. The community tabby picks his grumpy way between the largest of fallen leaves. He cannot sneak when every step crackles and crunches. The orange cat minces, one white foot carefully placed, then the other. He steps with great care among the brown. Or he clings to windowsills, edging along above the fray until the windows run out and he is forced to return to the ground.

People are busy. Some rake leaves, others mulch them in. At RedQuarters we wait for a generous carpet, enough to make the neighbors concerned about propriety and tidiness, then run a mulching mower over everything. One neighbor is out planting late-season flowers and hauling sacks of mulch. Another replaces brackets for Christmas lights, while promising not to put the lights up until Thanksgiving. House painters work down the street, touching up trim. Dad and I will wait for the last hold out of the trees to scatter its burden before we tackle the gutters. That tree’s leaves always end up in the gutters, even if we use gutter guards. It’s a plot, Dad’s certain of it.

A few birds have moved through. Waxwings and robins, the kites, all came and went. I saw a heron the other evening. The bats seem to have migrated south as well. I await the winter owl, the goldfinches and snowbirds. We have not had many geese yet. They might be waiting, or may have diverted to better-watered routes. Last month I heard sandhill cranes pass overhead. None since then, that I know of.

The light shifts, the sun slides south, the year turns. Orion’s heralds have appeared in the east.

More Real Estate Passing Through . . .

On Tuesday, New Mexico and the Permian Basin blew in. Yesterday and today, Colorado rushed past.

Ah, ’tis the season for traveling property. Dust, tree branches, garbage cans, tumbleweeds, small children . . . When a tightly-wound low-pressure system passes to the north of the region, we get troughs and dry cold-fronts that blow in. Translated into English, a large vacuum travels west to east along the jet stream, sucking air into itself to try and balance the pressures. This pulls air (wind) across a relatively low-resistance landscape. That being my house.

Southwest wind – dust, brown haze, smells like feedlot. The sky gets a brass-like hue to it, brownish-blue with a faint sheen to it.

North wind – my pickup looks as if it is trying to hatch tumbleweeds. There were so many that I gave up trying to pull them loose and just backed veeeeery slowly, hoping to break them free before one ignited. I was successful. Oh, and my house howls. The guards on the skylights catch the wind and moan, then start howling in a north-northwesterly wind (300-320 degrees).

When the wind starts to blow, you cinch down your hat, and start considering if you need to move garbage cans. After a certain point, you chase your garbage can down the block and bring it home. Windage matters: don’t “park” a rolling can with the wheels on the upwind side. That seems to encourage departures. It’s also a good idea to collapse light-weight patio furniture, and fold the umbrella or retract the awning. When the wind gusts to forty-five miles in hour, in town, things are going to move. And billboards collapse if the gusts are just right.

Back in the days of the haboobs, before the 1970s*, you could tell wind direction by the color of the soil that came in with the wind. Now we get far, far fewer of those kinds of storms. South of here still has them, however.

The head-shaking part is when you look at the horizon and see that all the wind turbines are locked, not turning. High winds are not good for them.

We need rain, as usual. Even just to tamp down the dust that moves when the wind blows, as it does out here.

*In 2011 we had the first and last one that I could recall. The sky went red, as in blood red, and visibility dropped down to an eighth of a mile. The power went out, and so I sat by the front window and read from my e-reader. Then a thunderstorm roared through and we got an inch of rain.

Peach-Colored Sunrise and Skittering Leaves

Autumn arrived on Sunday week, by way of a two-round cold front. First came a wind shift, from southwest to northeast. Then colder, wet skies full of low-hanging clouds and rain. Autumn is fully here, at last.

I woke early Sunday morning and half-napped after taking care of the cat. I’d left the windows cracked open the night before, because the high had been in the low 90s F, and the wind wasn’t supposed to get too strong overnight. The more fresh air that gets into the house, the better it is, to an extent, and I prefer to be a little cool at night. So I heard a few traffic sounds, drying leaves rustling on the northerly breeze, and the burbling trill of sandhill cranes. That caught my ear and I sat up, listening hard. Cranes? Surely if I heard anything it would be geese. No, the sound came again, passing northwest to southeast. Cranes, calling with that distinctive ancient sound as they passed overhead in the pre-dawn hours. Which suggested that the front might be stronger, and closer, than forecast. I got up, petted the cat for the third time, and hurried out to stroll.

A few tiny spitters and drips of rain blew on the rising wind. Low clouds, shredded and torn by the wind and the mixing air, hurried overhead, red-tinged in the city light. I could see glimpses of higher clouds to the west and east, with clear skies retreating to the south. As I walked, the clouds thinned and changed color. Soon they glowed the warm peach-pink and old gold of sunrise. Color swept the sky, stronger to the southeast and west than in true east or north. Peach became pink, then white grey as the first round of clouds passed. The tiny drops and hints of rain didn’t grow any stronger, at least not for a while.

Big brown leaves hissed and clattered across the street and driveways, chased by the wind. The sweet gum trees had begun shedding earlier, first their bark, then their big curved leaves. Now they shapes danced away on the wind, bouncing as they traveled. The big crescents of locust seed pods clattered down to the ground. They didn’t need the wind’s help to fall, they weighed so much, laden with seeds. The neighbors would be out that afternoon, raking them into something like a pile. At least those that the squirrels or the rising wind didn’t send to visit neighbors or into the street.

That afternoon, the light strengthened and shifted. Hard light shone down through the first brown leaves. Only the sweet-gum and locusts had begun turning, although the Bradford pears and oaks hinted at the possibility. The hawthorns, berry-heavy and crimson, glowed, leaves long gone as is their wont. Blue skies full of autumn light arced over the world. The lingering sweet-gum leaves looked almost gilded, the sunlight turning them and everything else faintly gold. The autumn sun has a quality, I’m not sure how best to describe it. Gold, almost hard-edged, but beautiful and almost gentle. Even on warm days, something is missing. Summer’s ferocious lion is tamed, mellowed with the aging of the year, softer. Clear light, free for now of smoke and dust, angled more and more from the south, bathed the afternoon, bringing out the best in the day. Even the rising north wind could not ruin the sweet moments.

Come late afternoon, dark northern skies had flowed south. Heavy clouds covered the sky, rain-laden clouds, their burden wrung loose by the twisting wind. Darkness and rain came together, heavy with a few bursts of lightening and snarls of thunder. The “equinoctial storm,” perhaps, although it came later than usual. This entire year has been off-kilter, so why not the traditional storms as well? No heavy weather here, just the token flash and grumble of a cold-front driven storm line buried in stratus, a reminder of what had come before.

Monday morning, Orion and the Seven Sisters glittered down, fresh-washed and hard in the hours before sunrise. They hovered just past the zenith, winter’s heralds. The morning smelled clean, and crisp, with a tease of smoke in the air. Come Friday, the fatty-rich perfume of piñon would arise from chimneys to proclaim the first frost’s coming.

The year turns, the stars pass in silent order. All is well.

Oops, I Misplaced Saxony! That’s Awkward.

Things in Europe move. I keep forgetting that, and so my mental map lets me down. I couldn’t find Saxony. It had to be there. It was in his title, but where was it? I’d left Saxony over in the east, where it’s supposed to be . . . in the modern country of Germany. That’s not exactly where “Saxony” could be found in 1100. Oops.

Today, when we use a place name, it usually refers to a specific state, province, nation-state, or location. “Alberta” is a fixed spot on the map of Canada, for example. Especially for Americans, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Texas, those are all places with a set and fixed location, in saecula saeculorum, amen. OK, those of us who grew up in the Cold War are aware that countries split (Czechoslovakia) or reunite (Germany). For people who studied the 20th Century, countries appeared and borders could be briefly fluid (The Austro-Hungarian Empire became: Austria, Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Ukraine, Croatia, Slovenia, and a bit of Yugoslavia). But things don’t move all that much, just get parceled out and redistricted. You know, like Congressional districts in the US every ten or so years.

At this point, my European, British, and Medieval historian readers are laughing mightily at the innocence of a Yank abroad. Saxony was a descriptor loooooong before it became a specific region of a country called Germany. Saxons moved into a swath of Central Europe in the 300s or so, give or take, maybe later. “Here be Saxons” was for the Romanized peoples of the south akin to “Here be Dragons.” Just not always as friendly as dragons. Charlemagne dealt with them, several times in fact. His successors, and the later Ottonians, dealt with them farther to the east as they pushed the Holy Roman Empire away from the original Frankish core. Always, Saxony was where you found Saxons.

However, when borders got set for various administrative districts, Saxony as a German Land (state) locked into place. After 1945, for now.

Saxony is northeast of Bavaria, with the Czech lands between them, more or less. Fair use under Creative Commons. Original found at: https://www.mapsof.net/europe/central-europe-political-map

So, there I was, tracing out some things with Frederick Barbarossa and his peers, and looking at the push to settle northern and eastern areas with cities and people, and to establish trade. This is all 1100-1150 or so. And I was reading about Henry “the Lion” Welf of Saxony and Bavaria. The linkage of the two areas made perfect sense, since they have almost-common borders.

But wait, what the heck’s Henry doing up around Hamburg, and Lüneburg, and that area? That’s not Saxony. Lübeck is certainly not Saxony. Why is he interested in things there, when he’s east and south?

*waits for snickers and eye rolling to stop*

Yes, you guessed it. I know better. I was imposing the modern map on medieval German lands. When I finally found a good map of the area at the time of the events described, I felt more than a little foolish.

Note Saxony, well north and west of the modern official Saxony. Because that’s where the Saxons had been and still were. Ouch. Fair Use under Creative Commons. Original source: https://www.theapricity.com/forum/showthread.php?206172-Holy-Roman-Empire-Central-Europe-and-European-Empires

Oh. So Henry the Lion had good reasons to be encouraging development of the northern areas, and the development of the Hanseatic League. And that explained why he controlled so much territory for so long (until his ego wrote a check his skills couldn’t cash.)

Places move, in the sense of “regional names associated with places.” Part of modern Saxony had been in Polish lands or claimed by Bohemia, or both at the same time (until the early 1300s and Casimir III of Poland.) Modern Saxony, and Lower Saxony, and Saxony-Anhalt, had Saxons in them, but were not necessarily Welf Saxony entirely. Yes, I thumped my head lightly against the desk. I know better, much better, but the books I’ve been reading don’t have maps in them. [Insert long cartographic rant here]. So I defaulted to modern maps, and went far astray. No excuses, and I kicked myself once I really started thinking about who was where doing what.

Monarchs and Swallowtails 2.0

It’s that time of year.

Ours are on fennel.

Alas, the giant butterfly bush (Buddleia) in the front yard succumbed to age and hard winter weather.

Fair use from: https://gardenerdy.com/butterfly-bush-care-maintenance/

We had a lot of swallowtail caterpillars back in the summer. And the cardinals ate all of them. However, Mom spotted a few second-round caterpillars recently, and moved them to a dense stand of fennel, well hidden from cardinals and jays.

Ansel Oommen, budwood.org. Black Swallowtail Caterpillar. Used under Fair Use for non-commercial usages. Image from:https://www.invasive.org/browse/detail.cfm?imgnum=5560093

The monarch butterflies came through a few weeks back, in late August. This is early, and they didn’t linger. The main migration seems to have shifted east this year, although that might be due to the lack of rain in the few weeks before they appeared. NM and CO dried out a little before we did, and were hotter, so that might also have encouraged the shift. Plus we didn’t have much that the monarchs cared for. They were all next door, pestering something red and fluffy (not a Buddleia) at the neighbor’s place.

The Mississippi kites, which arrived late this year, departed about the same time. The cicadas went silent last week, more or less, and the crickets are not as numerous as in August. Spiders have begun moving into the building at Day Job. We’ve had a few cool fronts knocking the temperatures down from the mid-upper 90s to our seasonal average lower 80s, but nothing really huge, yet. Those came through in August. We are also dry, even for this time of year. It is as if a switch flipped. Last week was hot and muggy, this week is warm and dry (from upper 60s F dewpoints to upper 40s dewpoints).

Orion is at the peak of the sky when I go out at 0600 to walk. The year is turning, will we or nil we. I want cooler weather. I’m a little worried about a repeat of Snowvid 21, or the October storm of last year. But there’s nothing I can do to change the weather, or to stop the change of seasons.

I am peeved about the Buddleia, though. I have yet to find a replacement as hardy as the big yellow one in the front garden. And the big purple one in the back took quite a beating from the cold this past winter, and June’s heat didn’t help.

*shrug* Welcome to gardening on the edge of a high desert.

Howdy, hawk!

A lady Merlin.

For some reason, allll the other birds were really quiet. The dove on the birdbath didn’t move for a good 15 minutes, until the merlin departed.

It’s been a busy week for urban wildlife. LawDog’s avatar stopped by to visit.

I zoomed way in, while standing away from the window. I didn’t want to spook the fox. At first I thought it was the neighborhood not-a-stray cat, but the ears were too big. So I put on my glasses. That’s not a red tabby cat.

Groundwater Users and the Future of the Ogallala

Short version – there are a lot of claims on the water under the plains, and a lot of ideas for what to do in the future. Some are more realistic than others.

Ted Turner – the Atlanta media and baseball team dude – talked about returning the High Plains (western area over the Ogallala Aquifer) to quasi-Ice Age status by seeding it with elephants, lions, and other African fauna sort of, kinda, like the Pleistocene megafauna. We will skip over the lack of ground water-fed springs and streams, the totally different precipitation patterns as compared to the last Ice Age, and a few other minor details. Let’s just say that his idea died the death it deserved. At least for now.

Another proposal, this from two professors at Rutgers, looked back to some of the New Deal programs and involved removing domestic livestock and crops from the region. Instead, a “Buffalo Commons” would allow bison to roam as they once had, and tourism and bison management would support the economy of the region, minus a lot of the current human residents. Again, the lack of surface water leaped to mind as a problem, along with the human tendency to dig in and hold when someone from Outside says, “I have a great idea. Let’s you leave and then we can . . .” There’s some value to some of the Poppers’ proposals, but also some big problems.

The Ogallala still has water. Some parts of the aquifer are getting thicker and gaining water. On average, among all the states on the Ogallala, 85% of the water taken out each year is used for irrigated agriculture. A good rule of thumb for an average year in southern Kansas, the Oklahoma Panhandle, and Texas is that one and a quarter acre-feet of water are needed per year per acre of water. An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons, more or less. This will cover one acre of land in one foot of water. The Oklahoma Panhandle, per the USDA (Ag department) has 230,000 acres of irrigated crop land. Those crops require, on average 290,000 a/f/y. Three-quarters of that is wheat and field corn, with another fifteen percent or so grain sorghum. In a wet year, irrigators use less. Dry year, more water, unless it is so bad that there’s no point in irrigating any longer. I’ve seen that. Even with super-efficient center-pivot systems, the blast-furnace wind evaporates the water before it touches the plants’ leaves, let alone the ground. You watch plants die before your eyes. Kiss lawns good-bye. Those years are rare, thanks be.

Flood-furrow irrigation uses the most water per acre in an average year, because it is less efficient.* It also requires a lot more attention by the farmer, and a lot fewer acres can be sloped the proper way for good flood-furrow watering. Water flows through pipes with holes in them, and flows out of the holes, down the furrows, and into a ditch or “tailwater” pit where it soaks into the ground. Each length of pipe runs for X time, and then the farmer turns off the water, moves the pipe by hand, and starts again. There’s a pretty high evaporative loss.

Center-pivot systems can be much more efficient if the newer technology is used. These are the giant sprinkler systems with nozzles that hang down below a central pipe on legs. The pipe rolls along, around and around a circle, and water sprays out. The ground doesn’t have to be as level. One farmer used 222 a/f/y on 245 acres in Kansas. When he switched to center pivot, that dropped to 155 a/f/y. You still lose water to evaporation, especially if it is windy or the nozzles are set too high in the air. A different Kanasas farmer switched from flood to sub-surface drip irrigation and went from between 10″ – 15″ of water per year to between three and a half and five inches per year. That’s a lot of water.

In some places, like western Kansas and parts of Texas, the depth to water has grown so deep that the cost of pumping it exceeds the value of the crops produced. Those acres are taken out of production for irrigated grain and turned into dry-land grain, or pasture. Yes, it uses far less water. You are also less likely to get a large grain crop, and the farms are larger, so fewer people live in the area. Small towns fade away along with the irrigated acreage. What is good for the individual is not always so good for the community.

However, irrigation tech and how people use the water are both far more efficient than they were twenty years ago. Better breeds of grain and other crops use less water, or are more salt tolerant, or both, so irrigation takes less water. Almost all the groundwater districts in all the states focus on best use for the water, and really encourage people to be as careful as possible. Ninety percent of farmers and ranchers are mindful of their water use, and try not to overdo it. Water is expensive! Fuel for pumps costs a lot, whether you use diesel or natural gas. Yes, there are people who don’t give a fig and pump as much as they can, devil take the hindmost. The water management districts have teeth (outside of Texas), and will take steps when legally possible to rein in the abuse.

Fifty years ago the Ogallala only had fifty years left at most. Today, well, it is still producing water. Water conservation is normal. Urban areas that depend on the aquifer try to encourage water conservation, although . . . It’s about as successful in some places as you’d fear. That’s one of my high-horses, so I will try to stay on the ground. Turf grass that’s not bred for your area, cities that demand lots of green and non-xeriscape plants around commercial properties, places that require close-clipped lawns (which use a lot more water in summer), swimming pools that are not covered when not in use, so evaporation goes on 24/7, all these things steal a lot more water than people think.

If people are careful, the aquifer still has a lot of life in it. If we are stupid, well, we can kiss the region’s economy bye-bye, and with it a bunch of food crops, and fiber as well.

*In some places, when done properly, flood-furrow is more efficient than center-pivot in terms of water use. A lot depends on the farmer, the humidity in the area, and what is being grown.

Sources:

This paper goes into some detail about efficiencies.

http://www.waterencyclopedia.com/Oc-Po/Ogallala-Aquifer.html

This is a contrarian view, arguing that federal policies are killing the aquifer and doom awaits. It is possible, true.

Just basic info, from Oklahoma State University.

“A Famous Victory:” Blenheim and Memory

Someone over at MGC posted the Robert Southley’s poem about the Battle of Blenheim, as part of a discussion about ordinary people doing hard duties while the Great and Powerful . . . do their thing. I bristled a little, but that’s because I have firm opinions about both sides of that conflict. So, first, the poem:

THE BATTLE OF BLENHEIM

by: Robert Southey (1774-1843)

T was a summer evening, Old Kaspar’s work was done,

And he before his cottage door Was sitting in the sun,

And by him sported on the green His little grandchild Wilhelmine.


She saw her brother Peterkin Roll something large and round

Which he beside the rivulet In playing there had found;

He came to ask what he had found, That was so large, and smooth, and round.


Old Kaspar took it from the boy, Who stood expectant by;

And then the old man shook his head, And with a natural sigh,

“‘Tis some poor fellow’s skull,” said he, “Who fell in the great victory.


“I find them in the garden, For there’s many here about;

And often when I go to plough, The ploughshare turns them out!

For many thousand men,” said he, “Were slain in that great victory.”


“Now tell us what ’twas all about,” Young Peterkin, he cries;

And little Wilhelmine looks up With wonder-waiting eyes;

“Now tell us all about the war, And what they fought each other for.”


“It was the English,” Kaspar cried, “Who put the French to rout;

But what they fought each other for I could not well make out;

But everybody said,” quoth he, “That ’twas a famous victory.


“My father lived at Blenheim then, Yon little stream hard by;

They burnt his dwelling to the ground, And he was forced to fly;

So with his wife and child he fled, Nor had he where to rest his head.


“With fire and sword the country round Was wasted far and wide,

And many a childing mother then, And new-born baby died;

But things like that, you know, must be At every famous victory.


“They said it was a shocking sight After the field was won;

For many thousand bodies here Lay rotting in the sun;

But things like that, you know, must be After a famous victory.


“Great praise the Duke of Marlbro’ won, And our good Prince Eugene.”

“Why, ’twas a very wicked thing!” Said little Wilhelmine.

“Nay … nay … my little girl,” quoth he, “It was a famous victory.”


“And everybody praised the Duke Who this great fight did win.”

“But what good came of it at last?” Quoth little Peterkin.

“Why, that I cannot tell,” said he, “But ’twas a famous victory.”

Blenheim, fought near the town of Blindheim* on August 12-13-14, 1704. The Franco-Bavarian army collided with the forces of the Holy Roman Empire under Prinz Eugen von Savoy, and General John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough. The French goal was to break apart an alliance that opposed the merger of France and Spain, and to capture Vienna. The English and Dutch fought as one group, the Imperial forces as a second group.

Those of you who have read Elizabeth and Empire know blow-by-blow how the fighting went, because that’s the conflict I based the final battle on. For others, I recommend: https://www.forces.net/services/army/blenheim-battle-created-marlborough-legend. However, the web-site comes with the caveat that it is very English, and I personally would give Prinz Eugen more credit. Which does not take away from Marlborough’s genius, especially in logistics. He managed to move an army from the Low Countries all the way to Bavaria without the French noticing, at a pace that was not matched until the 1900s. The Imperials acted as the anvil for the Anglo-Dutch hammer. It helped that Eugen and Marlborough were personal friends, and had worked together before. They trusted each other implicitly. The result was one of the most impressive victories in all of the wars against Louis XIV.

As with almost all battles, especially ones of this size, the results were horrific. Civilians had been burned out of their homes along the English line of march, part of efforts to starve and disrupt the Bavarians enough that the Bavarian ruler would back out of the alliance with France. Wounded men burned to death in cottages in one of the villages. Men and horses died by the thousands. The results . . . are as Southey describes. The Thirty Years War would have been only three generations past, and the memories were refreshed by the War of the Spanish Succession. Early Modern armies were worse than locusts, floods, and fires combined. They carried waste, destruction, and plague with them, no matter how careful the commanders might be.

There are worse things than war. Not for the poor people caught between the armies, or those who starved because the Anglo-Dutch and Imperials burned their crops and devoured their livestock, no. But had Louis XIV captured Vienna . . . I really do not care to imagine Europe remade in Louis’ image, thank you. I give him about 90% of the blame for the messes he got into. He sent his armies into the field for his own personal glory, since that would reflect on France, and he was France, at least in his own mind. Louis is one of my least favorite historical characters and always has been.

I also have a very soft spot for Prinz Eugen von Savoy. It’s hard not to admire someone who managed to accomplish everything he pulled off, especially someone who does it on a Habsburg budget! And I can sympathize with the grudge he carried against Louis XIV. I admire Marlborough as well, for different reasons. Emperor Leopold I . . . played into Louis’ hands, and they were fighting over Spain. More precisely, which one would end up with offspring on the throne of Spain. No one asked the Spanish, of course. Leopold is also the one who bailed on Vienna in 1683 when the Ottomans came knocking on the door. Granted, he had a reason, but I’m not really a fan. He was pretty average as Habsburgs go, from what I can tell.

So, was the battle a waste and all for nothing, as Southey’s poem implies? If you were a Bavarian citizen, probably. In terms of stopping Louis XIV and blunting the Franco-Bavarian threat, it was critical. For the average trooper on any side, well, it was another battle, a chance for loot, perhaps, and one collision in a long war. The English were all volunteers, some of whom I have no doubt were “voluntold” by judges, relatives, or others that the man really needed to go fight on the Continent or Else. Others were German mercenaries, conscripts, volunteers, and who knows what.

Blenheim, looking back from a high historical vantage point, was important for a lot of people. But it didn’t make things better for anyone, aside perhaps from the people in Vienna who did not face another siege. That’s the problem with dynastic wars. You don’t really have a hero or villain, not like in WWII or Korea. I root for the Imperials just because I detest Louis XIV. Well, that and because of their commander.

Indeed, it was a famous victory.

*I had the chance to visit the battlefield, but opted not to because the people with me were not interested. I regret that a little.

Groundwater Woes? Well, Where are You?

“The Ogallala Aquifer will be gone in fifty years!

“In twenty years!”

“The Ogallala recharges and has gained thickness over the past two years.”

Which of these is true? The answer is yes, depending on where you are, and what uses you are talking about. Because the Ogallala is very large, and exceedingly variable in thickness, surface-water access, and usage over the length and width of the formation. The climate shifts from north to south and east to west, adding further complications.

Original image from the USGS. Accessed at: https://civileats.com/2019/11/18/high-plains-farmers-race-to-save-the-ogallala-aquifer/

The Ogallala is a layer of sand and gravel that was deposited between two and six million years ago. Enormous rivers flowed off of the then-young Rocky Mountains, eroding the fast-rising peaks and dumping thick layers of sediment all over the plains to the east. this sediment remained loosely-packed and porous, even after it was covered in tens to hundreds of feet of soil and dust and sand. Because of water-resistant layers of stone underneath it, the Ogallala catches incoming surface water and acts as an aquifer. You can drill a well into it and bring up good, if somewhat mineral-laden, water that has been filtered by the sand and by time.

If you are up in the Nebraska Sandhills, on the northern end of the aquifer (the indigo-blue blob), rainfall and snowmelt sink into the formation, helping to recharge it. In some wet years, and some parts of the Sandhills, the aquifer will gain water and the water table rises to the surface. In dry years, when people have to pump a lot for their cattle and to irrigate fodder crops, the level drops.

Farther south, the thickness of the aquifer tapers off, and the climate is drier and warmer. Here, the use of the aquifer, especially since the invention of center-pivot irrigation in the 1950s, has dropped the level ten, fifty, hundreds of feet. Some counties in Kansas have reached a point where it is no longer cost effective to pump from the aquifer (depth to water of 600′ in a few places) and have reverted to pasture and to dryland crops. At the far tail end of the formation, near La Mesa, Texas, the aquifer was never thick to start with, and it hit close to bottom in the 1960s just from private and municipal wells.

Most of the area now has Groundwater Protection Districts that regulate consumption, either through voluntary mutual agreement, or force of law. It depends on the state, the state’s water-laws, and when the District came into being. Some Districts focus on keeping water in the ground for perpetuity, others are trying to slow draw-down so the water will run out no sooner than, oh, 2100 or so. Everyone agrees that conservation is needed, and is good, and that the more efficient use we can make of the water, the better off all of us on the aquifer are. It’s just how to do that, and what the best use of the water might be that we politely disagree over. OK, loudly disagree, with the occasional shoving match, especially when outsiders pop up and announce that they are going to drain the water and send it: downstate, out-of-the-state, or to The Big City. Nothing unifies people like a common enemy.

The main use for the water is farming. Watering crops, watering livestock, and processing livestock are major uses. A pork-packing plant was proposed for part of southwest Kansas back in the 1990s. It was denied permits because pork processing takes at least three times the water per carcass as does beef packing. Irrigation has come a long way in terms of efficiency, from the old flood-furrow system where farmers moved lengths of pipe by hand, poured water onto the soil and then moved the pipes again, to modern low-flow, low-height nozzle center-pivot systems, to in-ground drip irrigation with built in moisture meters that only release water when and where it is needed by the plants. The cost has risen with the complexity, but water use per acre has decreased markedly. The development of low-moisture hybrid wheats and other grains, plus some experimentation with arid-region grains such as teff, has further reduced the need for irrigation water per acre, at least in average to moist years.

People also drink the water, enjoy swimming in reservoirs, and complain about the flavor and what the mineral-rich water does to your teeth. (They are stronger, and slightly brown from the fluoride.) Lots of people, millions of people, who brush, and flush, and shower, and water lawns not designed for the climate, and wash cars, and build pools and . . .

Ahem. Sorry. The wandering soapbox jumped me. I have some personal beefs with open pools and blue-grass lawns in semi-arid places.

Since this is already getting long, on Friday I’ll continue and we’ll look at hard numbers, playa lakes and springs, and different thoughts about the future of the region.

(Edited to change date of part two. I wrote 5000+ words on Monday and my brain is numb.)

Nocturne or Matins?

There are days when you wake up earlier than you need to, and just know that returning to sleep is impossible. It was one of those nights/mornings. Two texts, both sent hours before they arrived, had kicked my fight/flight overreaction into gear, and midnight had passed before sleep arrived. At 0430 I woke from a rather odd dream – dreaming that I was dreaming about something – and after ten minutes gave up. At 0530 I tied my walking shoes and headed out, walking staff in hand.

A mild breeze stirred the cool, damp air. Not quite humid enough for dew, the morning still felt misty, enough that I could see the beams of headlights. Clouds, the remnants of storms overnight in New Mexico, hurried across the sky, hiding then revealing the waning moon and Orion. False dawn faded into true dawn, but sunrise would not come for another half hour or so. No colors save silver and dark, dark blue-black graced the sky. The air smelled of growing things now tired, of sweet flowers, a whiff of fresh asphalt, and moisture.

I had the sidewalks and roads to myself, more or less. The early-shift people had already departed, and the people who need daylight to labor were not yet on the road. I heard a few dogs, and a motorcycle or something else with a high-pitched engine racing along the straight stretch of road where people do that (much to the irritation of everyone else.) One bicycle commuter hurried past, his headlight flickering with each pedal stroke. A solitary jogger plodded along, thudding his way through the quiet morning.

Two or three birds chirped their opinion. The doves sleep in this time of year. A few cardinals are early risers, and anything that disturbs the grackles is greeted with loud, harsh dismay. The kites have begun moving south. I saw one toward the end of my stroll, warming up in a tree and waiting for heat and thermals. The cicadas stayed quiet. They favor afternoons and evenings for their conversations, harsh and whirring and loud, louder than lawn equipment, rising and falling in the heat, the droning sound of summer. A western kingbird perched on a road sign, waiting for cars to stir up the bugs in time for breakfast.

A bat fluttered past, darting and dodging ahead of my path. I see one or two bats a month during the summer, if I’m out early enough. The fox, another early riser or late-goer, crossed my trail last week. We avoid each other, after the little surprise as I was moving the neighbor’s newspaper. The fox was on the front stoop. I froze, he froze, I backed away, he departed. A bit like the Cooper’s hawk perched above the neighbor’s door two weeks ago. A younger hawk had found something in the chaos of ivy flowing down the front of the house. The senior hawk observed from the dormer peak. I opted to leave the paper on the windowsill and return later to put it in the basket.

Enough sunlight rounded the curve of the earth by 0630 that grey-white cloud towers appeared in the southern and western sky. Only a little paler than the fading night around them, they warned of another showery day in the offing. No one is complaining, not this year. The wheat is in, the cotton needs the rain, as do other crops, and the ranchers almost always want rain – at least until the first hard freeze. The southwest breeze, taking strength from the pending sunrise, teased my hair and face as I rounded the corner for home. As I unlocked the front door, I glanced over my shoulder. Orion had faded away, leaving the slender moon alone in the blue-grey sky.