Spontaneous Generation of Toads (and ‘Skeeters)

All you need is dirt and a generous amount of water. Apply water to dirt. Let sit 24 hours. You will get toads. Wait another 24 hours and the first mosquito will whine its way to your door. Meanwhile, the earth has turned green, the grass suddenly looks lush, and all those weeds you thought you’d gotten rid of? Think again.

RedQuarters has gotten over ten inches of rain (26 cm) in the month of May. This is half the annual average rainfall – 20″ or 60 cm, give or take. Because the house is built on a ridge, we have stayed dry. There is a lot of green space in this part of town so a goodly portion of the rain is absorbed, or is slowed by trees and bushes. The built-up areas nearby still flood, and the bottom of the lake nearby also collects water. That’s what lakes and lowlands do, no matter what you think you can build there. In this case, the city decided to make a quasi virtue of a necessity and deepened the lake, as they have done with several others.

The rainwater (“pluvial”) lake on the way to St. Angus in the Grass School is filling very nicely. Last week I heard toads for the first time in a few years. The playa had been 99% dry, with that remaining one percent mostly mud, as best as I could tell through binoculars. The land is still private, and I don’t trespass without permission. Now, there’s enough standing water in the core that you can see reflections in it. The various rings of plants have begun to come back to life. Open water in the middle, then sedges and cattails that like wet feet appear. Slightly farther up the slope are arrowhead plants (named for the shape of the leaves), then other forbs and grasses that need good moisture (taller grasses, western wheat grass), then the gramas and buffalo grass. This should also drown out the cactus that had begun creeping in.

It only took 36 hours from the lake starting to fill to hearing the “singing” of the toads. They are relatively small and brown, larger than the spring peepers of the upper Midwest. With the toads come insects, mosquitoes (boo, hiss) followed by dragon flies. The birds have also been busy. I suspect the snakes have moved away from buildings and out to where the mice and birds and toads are. The meadowlarks are also scattering out, now that there’s more food. A large hawk or two patrols the area. Western flycatchers and swallows have divided up the intersections in the area, extending the moth season into “anything else” season.

In fact, when I went back to work last week in the afternoon for chapel, I heard a commotion. Meadowlarks were mobbing something in a tree near the middle school. First. I’d never seen meadowlarks mob before. Second, well, if they’d treed one of the students, the kid probably deserved it. Just as I crossed the parking area, the tree shook and a Cooper’s hawk erupted from the leaves, with a smaller bird pecking on his head! I was impressed.

The past three weeks have been glorious for ranchers, and for people who were irrigating wheat. Some dryland wheat and other grains have perked up and will make it. It was too late for other places. But now the farmers need the rain to stop so they can plant, and for the weather to get warm so the corn can start to mature. Truly unfortunate places got scythed by 2.5-3″ hail. All you can do is either turn some livestock out to feed on what’s left, or plow it in as green manure and try again with something like sorghum. Several towns have had high-water problems, and Tucumcari, NM completely lost power because of flooding and giant hail that took out a main transmission line. Hereford, TX got seven inches of rain in a few hours upstream of town. Almost 90 houses had water in them, and a US highway had to be closed because of water over the road. What’s good for the land isn’t always so good for the people on the land.

No one is complaining too much yet. I don’t think anyone dares. We needed this, so desperately needed it. El Niño has returned, with all the good things and bad things it can bring. For now, everyone’s just being thankful for the rain. I hear the singing of the toads, the bragging of the meadowlarks and smile. The air is full of green-ness, sweet and clean. ” … as the light of the morning, when the sun riseth, even a morning without clouds; as the tender grass springing out of the earth by clear shining after rain,” As King David put it (Second Samuel 23: 4).

“And it was very good.”


Putting Water Back In the Ground

A lot of people depend on ground water, aquifers, for drinking and irrigation. Some aquifers recharge on their own, and do it pretty quickly, such as the Edwards Aquifer in central Texas, or the Sandhills portion of the Ogallala Aquifer. Others either recharge very, very slowly, or not at all. Those are the ones that tend to get lots and lots of attention, unless Central Texas is dry, and Austonio begins talking about sending a pipeline up to the Panhandle to tap the Ogallala.

A quick note to clarify here, before I go any farther. I’m talking about aquifers in sediment like sand and gravel, not groundwater in bedrock, as is found in New England, Canada, and a few other places. That is a different formation, with different flow patterns, and I know next to nothing about how those “work” other than general theory. If you are in New Hampshire and you have a well drilled into bedrock, please contact a local expert.

How do aquifers recharge? It depends on the material above and below the porous layer. That’s what most aquifers are – a layer of sand and gravel that at one time was exposed to rain and snow, or was a river bed (large swaths of the Ogallala and Equus Beds). Under that layer is a watertight layer, usually a shale or something. Over time, that sand and gravel got buried by other things and now lies below the land surface. A few, like the Edwards in central Texas, have access today through caves and sinkholes, where rain can fall right in, or have a very porous layer above that lets rain and snow melt trickle down pretty quickly. The Nebraska Sandhills are pure sand, and water that falls there soaks in, recharging the Ogallala below. Unless there is an extended drought, recharge is not as much of a concern (over-pumping that draws down the water too fast is a different matter.) Other aquifers, like those in Arizona, coastal Georgia, and most of the Ogallala, would take hundreds to thousands to regain their water, if they can at all. When the aquifer is buried hundreds of feet below the surface and topped with firmly-packed dirt, caliche, and so on, water has a harder time soaking in. These are “fossil” waters, and you just assume they won’t recharge without help. How to help without destroying the formation, is another problem.

First, there has to be water to go back in. Without that, it’s pretty moot. Also, the material in the aquifer layer has to still be loosely-packed enough to accept water. If you draw enough out, the layer compresses, and that’s that. No recharge ever, unless all the surface material erodes away and rain falls directly on the sand and gravel.

Ideas for recharging aquifers all involve “putting the water back in down there,” or at least, giving the water an assist. Drilling a well and pouring water back in . . . has a lot of technical difficulties, including the fear of contaminating the rest of the aquifer if some chemical or biological contaminant seeps in – think fecal coliform, or avian cholera, or . . . So the water would have to be filtered, and dust kept out, and the water released high enough that the layers between the end of the well and the aquifer would filter some of the stuff. Oh, and you have to hope that on the way down, the water won’t pick up salt, gypsum, or dig a hole that causes a sink hole.

Around here, attempts were made to deepen the natural rainwater lakes, punching through the clay layer at the bottom of the shallow depression to allow more water to seep in. It started well, but the clay swells, and sediment filled in the holes, closing them. Also the rate or recharge did not justify the cost of the work, which has to be maintained. And depends on moisture. In a year like 1940-41, when the area got 40″ of rain or more, no problem! In a decade like the 1950s, or 2010-2014? Rain? What rain?

Most aquifers were “laid down” when the local/regional climate was much wetter. The Ogallala was sediment dumped from the Rockies by huge, enormous, massive, gargantuan rivers that wandered back and forth over the region for millions of years. Then things changed. In the case of the Ogallala, the goal in 90% of the region is to balance draw-down over time, so that X% of the current depth will remain in Y years. Some places are changing types of crops, other areas revert to range land, and irrigation is much, much more efficient than it used to be. The down side to better irrigation is that less excess water seeps back in to return to the aquifer.

Eventually, a way might be found to return water to places like the Ogallala, Equus beds, coastal aquifer, and so on. If the stuff has not compacted, and if there is sufficient rain and snow to permit that. And if people are willing to spend the money and time needed to do it.

Book Review: The Yellow River: A Natural and Unnatural History

Mostern, Ruth. The Yellow River: A Natural and Unnatural History (Yale University Press, 2021) hard cover.

It was once called the Great River, and flowed clear. Over time, human use, climate shifts, and political responses to floods and droughts led to the river becoming the Yellow River, sometimes called China’s Sorrow. How this happened is a story as convoluted as the river’s floodplains, and a fascinating lesson in parts vs the whole, and the limits of human power. People and water, and silt and sand, worked together to destabilize the great river over the course of a thousand years.

Asian environmental history has been relatively under-studied, in part because of problems with language, in part because of the enormous spans of time involved. European environmental history is easier to divide, and the archaeological pieces are gathered into tidier “heaps” of sources, so to speak. Only within the past 20 years or so have many works about the environmental history of China been published. This book builds on several classic works of that history, and expands the time-span of the history of the Yellow River.

Mostern argues that while climate shifts and weather pattern changes played a role in the changes observed in the Yellow River watershed, human activity played a far greater role, especially after roughly the year AD 600 CE. Differences in priorities between imperial governments and local officials, plus the focus on relatively free-market development and agriculture, led to Han Chinese culture expanding into regions not suited for intensive farming. By 1855, the Yellow River had become unusuable and impossible to manage (given the finances and technologies of the time), and what had once been a fertile and prosperous region turned into a salty, gravel and sand-choked series of barrens and wetlands. The Loess Plateau in the bend of the Yellow River transformed with ever-increasing speed from grasslands and mixed forests to a rugged, eroded near-desert that sent millions of tons of sediment to cover the floodplain downstream.

Warfare caused much of the damage to the ecosystem of the upper Yellow River, but stable imperial regimes could be just as bad for the environment. The region is one of conflicts – hot and cold air masses, desert winds and tropical moisture, herders and farmers, imperial centralization and tribal societies. Competing armies stripped the land of forests and grass, and the soldier-farmers of Imperial China denuded the land to build walls and grow food for their own survival. When the nomads chased the Han back to the river and farther south, they too removed forest cover, although long stable periods did allow for regrowth of grass and trees. Sometimes. The development of iron-bladed plows and intensive farming technologies caused further, faster, erosion. Demand for fuel and building wood in peace time as well as war devoured more and more forests, causing more erosion and more flooding downstream.

Some observers saw what was happening and argued that the erosion and loss of ground cover needed to stop at the source. When the capital city remained in the upper Yellow River, the government seemed—sometimes—more interested in considering those ideas. But once the government moved downstream, the focus shifted to coping with the results of the problem, not the sources. Huge floods in 1048 and other years devoured tens of thousands of farmland, displaced millions, and drained the imperial treasury. Only the Grand Canal made it possible to feed and supply Peking/Beijing as the land around it turned sandy and salty from inundation and sediment dumping. In 1885, efforts to keep the Grand Canal open failed, and sea transport became the only to move food to the city. Southern China refused to pay for the problems of the Yellow River.

The book is very well written with excellent illustrations, tables, and a long appendix of methodologies. It helps to have a background in overall Chinese history, but that is not needed. A bit of hydrology helps even more, otherwise the learning curve might be a touch steep in the introduction and first chapter. I found the book an easy read, but one with lots and lots to ponder and mull over. The author is even handed in her approach – people can’t know what they can’t know, and the imperial hydrocrats’ priorities made sense to them. They lacked the tools and the resources to see the entire watershed as a whole. Those who did pull back to see the larger picture lacked the will to sacrifice the imperial capital to floods in order to pour resources into the upstream lands.

The author’s use of some terms struck me as odd, enough so that it pushed me out of the story a few times. I disagree with using the term “Anthropocene,” although in this case there is some logic to it, given the importance of human influences on the life of the river. Other usages were literally correct, but jarring, almost as if the author were not a native speaker. I do not know, and it does not affect the overall readability and quality of the book.

I recommend the book to historians of water, historians of China, people interested in the interactions of government and the physical environment, and conservationists. The idea that “the problems caused by central control can be fixed by central control” rings all too true in the West today. I am reminded of an interview I did with a farmer about flooding on a small river. He shrugged and said, “Rivers flood. That’s what rivers do.” People can try to work around, with, or against floods and droughts, but only by looking at the watershed as a while, rather than reach by reach. This is an excellent addition to the literature in several disciplines.

FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this book for my own use and received no compensation or remuneration for this review.

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. https://ballotpedia.org/Chart_of_interstate_compacts 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.

Flashy River!

You know you’re not from a “normal” part of the world when you glance over the side of the bridge and exclaim, “Wow! There’s water in the river.” And boy was there ever! A week ago Saturday, a line of thunderstorms dropped lots and lots of hail and rain on the headwaters of several branches of the Red River. When I crossed the river down near Esteline around noon on the next day, so much water had flowed downstream that the river filled the banks and had large waves on it. Those people passing through from out of state to the east probably wondered if someone was reenacting the Plagues of Egypt. The river really did run red, as if with blood. (Thus the name.) High, wide, muddy, and dangerous, the water raced downhill, headed for the Gulf of Mexico. Continue reading