Living With Drought

People in the Southwest are learning to live with drought. Recently, there was a "drought seminar" in Johnson City, Texas.

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Drought is here, in the Southwest, at least — and it will be here for most of the near future. But you can learn to live with it.

That was the message from a series of speakers at a Living with Drought seminar at the First United Methodist Church in Johnson City, Texas, presented by the Blanco County Disaster Response Group.

John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas State Climatologist, began the morning with the bad news we already knew: It looks like the winter and spring, usually our wet seasons, will be drier than usual, so we’ll start next summer with already-dry ground.

“What we get into is drought feedback,” Nielsen-Gammon explained. “Less rain means less soil moisture to evaporate into the atmosphere, and less evaporation means less rain, and less soil moisture, and it just keeps going.”

Drought doesn’t mean we’ll have no rain at all, he hastened to point out; it means we’ll have a lot less than we’re used to, and even with some normal or even wet years scattered in, most of our years will be dry ones.

Dead grass and higher fire danger are obvious results, but some effects aren’t so intuitive. For one thing, the number of rabies cases has doubled in Texas.

Rabies was mentioned by both Epidemiologist Russ Jones of the Texas Department of State Health Services and Dr Paul Axtell of Deer Creek Veterinary Clinic as a top health hazard of drought, both for humans and animals. Axtell explained that carrier-animals transmit rabies more because they’re in closer contact in drought. Normally solitary animals find themselves jostling each other for the diminishing sources of water and food, and passing around the rabies virus. 

Then, added Jones, the hunt for food and water drives them into populated areas they’d normally avoid, where they are more likely to pass on the virus to livestock, pets and people. 

But Jones listed air quality and wildfire as the top human health hazards. The fire danger is obvious, but he said it also contributes to the air pollution with smoke and soot. Add the dust blown up from dry soil, and our fresh air often carries enough particles to be unhealthy, especially for the elderly and very young.

Drought is no easier on wildlife. Mike Krueger, wildlife expert for Texas Parks and Wildlife, said animals, from humans down to insects, need the same things: food, water and cover. Drought reduces all three.

The dry environment makes food and water harder to find, of course, but he said the cover which shelters and hides wildlife also shrinks as trees die, grasses shrivel and even the hardy ashe juniper — cedar brush — turns brown and dies.

“The effect cascades,” he described, “as birds and animals lose their homes and food sources, they go into survival mode, reproducing less, and the young they do produce die in greater numbers, leaving a population dip that lasts as long as this generation lives.”

The three speakers on plants agreed the solution is simple — all it takes is water — as long as you can afford to buy it from the city, or as long as your well produces enough.

A better solution for gardens, though, is to plan to use much less water than normal and still get good fruits and vegetables, said Bill Luedecke, a well-known Burnet County gardening expert. “Put good soil underneath and good mulch on top, then add water judiciously in between to provide the plants what they need without waste.”

Todd Swift, Blanco County Agri-Life extension agent, said the small gardens actually are more water-efficient than big commercial farms, which use 50% more water for the same production. One of his tips is planting earlier than most people would, even if it means germinating plants indoors while the weather still is too cool to sprout. That allows the plants to grow, bloom and produce in the spring and early summer, before the hottest weather hits.

As for trees, “things may not be as bad as they appear,” said arborist Robert Edmonson, of the Texas Forest Service. “Many of the trees which turned brown and dropped their leaves at the end of the summer may just be protecting themselves with early dormancy, and will come back in the spring if they get water. Don’t count a mature tree out until you give it another growing season to green up again.”

A speaker many were waiting to hear was Jerry Williams, a specialist in wildfires in the areas where development meets the country, and where humans are the chief cause of their own fire danger. He described the fire season just — he hopes — ended as the worst in Texas history, with almost four million acres blackened, nearly 3,000 homes burned and 47,000 other buildings destroyed. Labor Day weekend, when Bastrop’s fires dominated the news, firefighters battled 782 other fires across Texas.

Where do wildfires fires come from? Mostly from humans, Williams said, triggering them accidentally, either directly or indirectly.

And what feeds them? Also humans, by not removing potential fuel before fire season, and by putting flammable materials in the way of fire, sometimes by bringing fire fuel right up against their homes, which are snuggled into the combustible forest.

“Fire safety doesn’t mean you have to live in a barren open space,” explained WIlliams, “it just means you need to take common-sense precautions about where you put your house, what you build it from, and how you take care of your environment to keep fire at a safe distance.”

Oh, and all that cedar that died in the summer drought? Good news and bad news there. Eventually, the cedar die-off will mean more water in the soil and rivers, and more grass and wildflowers on the surface.

But until then, as long as the cedars stand dead and dry, they are a huge fire hazard just waiting for a spark to explode in flame as if they had been soaked in gasoline.

George Barnette chairs the Blanco County Disaster Response Group, Blanco, Texas.

 

 

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