Five Steps from Aldo Leopold

If you are interested in national parks and wilderness areas in the US, or in land restoration, or in hunting and nature writing, you have probably heard of or read something by Aldo Leopold. If you are involved in wetland or stream restoration or remediation, you know the work of Luna Leopold, Aldo’s son, and Dave Rosgen, who studied under Luna and who devised a way to describe bodies of moving water in ways that are 1) useful and 2) universal.

I was revisiting an older post recently and started counting back. I studied under one of Rosgen’s students. That makes me four academic generations from Aldo Leopold. Closer, perhaps, because my teacher met Luna briefly at a conference when my teacher was younger. My other grad school pedigrees trace back to Francis Parkman and Frederick Jackson Turner. If you are into environmental or western US history, this is sort of cool. If you are outside of academia, you probably consider this information slightly less useful than the TV remote is to a goldfish. 🙂

I happened to be shifting books around two weeks ago, and rediscovered my copy of Luna Leopold’s textbook on hydrology. It is a bit dated in some ways, but still very useful. After all, water still flows uphill toward money, or downhill after a rain, at a rate that varies with the surface under the water and the intensity of the rainfall. Streams still erode their beds (degrading) or build them up by leaving extra sediment behind (aggrading). Hillslopes still slide downhill if conditions are just right, and take houses with them. Unless someone changes gravity’s intensity, or the physics of water flow, certain calculation methods and rules of thumb remain valid.

Luna was the son of Aldo Leopold. Aldo wrote some of the best articles about landscape, wildlife, and how we see them, that I have read. His Sand County Almanac and Other Writings is a classic among hunters, naturalists, and people who like reading about landscapes and critters. If I could write like that, and see like that . . . Sigh. He visited the Colorado River delta while it still had a goodly amount of water in it. He also acted as a predator control officer for the forest service back when all wolves and bears were to be extirpated. Then he saw the results, and became one of the strongest advocates for wilderness preservation and predator conservation. He died of a heart attack while fighting a small wildfire on his neighbor’s property in Wisconsin in 1948. All of his five children became biologists or hydrologists. His ideas about conservation, stewardship, and “land ethic” provide a balance between the “use it all up” side (now long gone in the US) and the “don’t touch, humans are bad” end of the environmental scale.

Aldo died in 1948. Luna died in 2006. Last I heard, my teacher is still around, as is Dave Rosgen. You can buy Aldo Leopold’s books today, and I encourage you to do so. They are great writing, even if you don’t agree with all of his philosophy. He and Loren Eisley are two of my favorites, although they are very, very different. (Eisley gets . . . Odd. And metaphysical, and strange. But his poem ‘The Innocent Assassins” and some of his essays on night and darkness are fascinating.)

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.

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.)

Book Review: The Collapse of the Eastern Mediterranean

Ellenblum, Ronnie. The Collapse of the Eastern Mediterranean: Climate Change and the Decline of the East, 950-1072. (Cambridge University Press, 2012) Kindle.

Everyone knows that the 900s-1200s were a great time to be in Europe – warm, good weather in general, leading to a period of cultural and economic development that is often called the High Middle Ages, when the great cathedrals were built and chivalry flourished and the Hansa cities were at their peak. That’s true, but only if you were in western or central Europe. The Levant, Mesopotamia, the Balkans, the Pontic Steppes and Egypt? Endured bitter cold, drought, plague, and economic collapse. Invasion came with the cold and drought, and pushed the Byzantine Empire into rapid decline. North Africa went from semi-bread-basket to desert with pockets of irrigation, and Jerusalem was almost abandoned. When the warriors of the First Crusade breached the gates of the holy city, they found very few people compared to the population in the year 1000 or so.

The weather patterns that warmed and moistened western and northern Europe froze and desiccated Southwest Asia.

The book’s origins stem from Ellenblum’s curiosity about the lack of water in Jerusalem vs. the population it was supposed to have supported during Roman and early Byzantine times. This led to studying the hydrology of the city, and the discovery that most of the springs had dried up by the time of the First Crusade. Why? Bad land management? Climate shifts that caused the springs to lose groundwater and fail? As it turns out, the answer is a series of cold, dry years that caused the local water table to drop. This dried the springs, many of which never returned even after the rains came back. Jerusalem had to shift to relying on rainwater caught in cistern during the winters, meaning it could no longer support even half the population it had boasted at the time of Jesus.

When the author looked farther, it proved that Egypt, the rest of the Levant, Mesopotamia, and the Pontic Steppes (area north of the Black Sea) also suffered severe cold and drought during the period of roughly AD 950-1100. The lack of rain, and the bitter cold (snow on the ground in Baghdad for 40 days!) caused already tense relations between settled peoples, Bedouin nomads, and steppe nomads to collapse. The governments could not feed the people in some cases, nor could they keep the Turkic nomads out of the river valleys. When the Turks arrived, they burned, looted, carried off people to sell or ransom, interrupted trade, and eventually took over swaths of the area. The great centers of Islamic and Jewish learning in Baghdad disappeared, and Islam (Sunni) took on a different intellectual focus, one less interested in preserving the Classical philosophies and more on Islam’s own philosophy.

This is one of the books that I read and slap myself on the forehead and go “Duh.” I’d always wondered why the Seljuk Turks suddenly appeared in Southwest Asia. We went from Byzantine vs. Arab to “Turks in Charge” in the 1050s and later. Why? Where had the Seljuks come from? Why had they left the steppes? Well, they were pushed by the need for fodder and food, because the terrible weather drove them south and west. This also caused the Magyars (Hungary) and Bulgars to raid the edges of the European part of the Byzantine Empire just as Constantinople was cut off from major sources of food and military personnel. Toss in the plagues that always break out in cold, undernourished populations, and you can see why the empire started devaluing its currency and could no longer hold onto the edges of its territory, especially in Asia Minor.

Elllenblum is tightly focused on the region, so there are no cross-comparisons with western Europe or Russia (Kievan Rus). I do know from other reading that China experienced cold and drought in the 1000s, with floods and the disaster of the Yellow River floods following (1090s-1140s). The author alludes to the push to the east, and into South Asia, leading to shifts in Muslim control over northern India (the Lodi Sultanate). The book is also somewhat episodic, and focuses on weather and its direct effects, rather than on telling human stories. If you are looking for the tales of people, or a seamless, flowing narrative, you will be disappointed.

The book also lacks a bibliography. This is inexcusable on the part of Cambridge University Press. The notes are extensive, but readers are forced to comb through them at the end of each chapter to find material and primary sources if a reader wants to follow up on a topic.

I highly recommend this book for students of medieval Middle Eastern history, for those interested in the environmental history of all of Europe, and scholars wanting to fill in gaps about the causes of movements, migrations, and the shifting attitude of local Muslim rulers to Christians and Jews. A basic background in the overall history of the region is good, but not really necessary depending on the reader’s focus. I found the book easy to read, but this is my baliwick. Non-specialists might not be as enthralled.

FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this book for my own use and received no compensation from the author or the publisher for this review.

Pushes and Pulls

Why do groups of people relocate, especially in pre-modern times? There’s always a reason for groups to move. Individuals might wander on a whim, be it wanderlust, the desire to escape relatives, or just to see if the grass really is greener “over there.” But when cultures and tribes up sticks and head out, there’s always a push and a pull. One of the things I’m starting to tease apart when I look at the big-picture history of Europe and Southwest Asia is the pushes and pulls behind population shifts. “The Huns were moving, so these other people moved.” OK, why did the Huns move? For a long time we didn’t know, because the written records didn’t include interviews with various historical characters or groups. However, in the past forty years or so, environmental history has provided a few new reasons for pushes, at least.

Keep in mind, weather and landscape are not deterministic. That is, very, very rarely can you point to one climatic event or geological thing and say, “This is why the Seljuk Turks left Central Asia” or “this is why the Anasazi left the area to become [various tribal groups].” Sometimes you have to pull together bits and pieces from archaeology, geology, palynology and tree ring and stalagmite studies, epigraphy, business records, government reports (if they exist), and look for patterns, then try to sort out what caused the pattern. And sometimes you bring a new approach to old data and say, “Hey, you know, I wonder if the reason for [thing] could be related to [other thing waaaaay the heck over here]?” You know, like the rash of very large range fires in the late 1800s in the Texas Panhandle being related to a combination of wetter weather and far fewer grazers keeping the lawn clipped. So there’s a lot more grass, in more places, so if it dries out and a spark gets tossed by something, well, you get Interstate Grass Fires of Unusual Size.

So, pushes and pulls. In the late AD 900s – early 1000s CE, while western Europe was basking in the Medieval Warm Period and starting to build giant cathedrals, hold enormous trade fairs, and enjoy the good weather, Egypt, eastern North Africa, and as far east as Afghanistan started with drought, then a series of cold years that led to famine, disease, civil unrest, attacks by nomadic peoples (Bedouin) on cities, and eventually the Seljuk Turks moving out of the Steppes into Southwest Asia. Their behavior triggered the Southern Crusades. This pattern also put pressure on the Byzantine Empire and explains the renewed push by the Arabs and Persians against the Byzantine borders, further weakening them.

The push for the Seljuks was the terrible cold weather that caused the grass to die, and their animals as well, forcing them to relocate. The pull was a political vacuum in Mesopotamia and warmer weather with better forage conditions. The Byzantines were not in a good position to chase anyone out of the region at that point, neither were the Fatimids of Egypt, so the Seljuks stayed, and eventually helped pull the Ottomans out of the Pontic Steppe, and we all know what happened then.*

Back up five hundred years or so, and we see something similar in Northern Europe. Why were the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Burgundians, Huns, Bulgars, Avars, Franks, and Vandals all moving west? Dry weather in the Eurasian Steppes was pushing them, possibly an outbreak of plague as well, and the resources and relative disorganization of the Roman Empire (both halves) provided a pull. Once the Western Empire could no longer defend against eastern pressure, the Germanic and Slavic people flowed in, driven now by cold and dry or cold and wet episodes farther east. After whatever happened in the early 500s (possibly huuuuuge volcanic eruption where the Sunda Strait now sits), the weather turned very bad in Europe, forcing further population shifts (the push) into milder or at least not-as-bad areas (the pull). Plague and hunger dropped the population in some areas, opening space for migration (Britain, possibly). Come the 800s, things are improving in the West, and too many young men in Scandinavia need a job, so they start trading and Viking. Drought in the eastern steppe pushes the Magyars, who push others, who appear in the western historical records as “barbarian nomads.” Charlemagne got to deal with them, and with the Saxons, and a few early Vikings.

North America shows something similar but in the 1300s. The Little Ice Age caused major drought in the American Southwest and affected weather in the central part of the continent as well. At the same time, the people of the Cahokia cultural complex found themselves having problems, partly because of deforestation. They shifted away from the large-centrally-managed culture and back to smaller, scattered groups, eventually moving south and east. This pushed other peoples, who pushed more people, and so on.

China in the 1600s – Bad weather, bad management, disease outbreaks, civil unrest from all of the above. Nomads moving because of the cold and harsher weather push on the borders, until someone invites a group in to solve the local problem and then leave. They didn’t leave. They became the Qing Dynasty.

Pushes and pulls. They are a lot more complicated than what I’ve sketched above, because I’m just thinking about some of the easy to spot episodes, the biiiiig ones that historians can point to and say, “See, this is what I’m talking about.” One of my very long-term projects is looking at the pushes and pulls in Central and Southeastern Europe, and comparing those patterns and responses to borderlands elsewhere. There are some similarities — we’re talking about humans, after all — and echoes, but also differences.

*”Prinz Eugen and Jan Sobieski, if you can hear this announcement please pick up the white courtesy phone for a message, Prinz Eugen and King Jan Sobieski . . . ”