By Eilene Lyon
August 1, 1936, Saturday
July has gone, and still no rain. This is the worst summer yet.
— Ann Marie Low Dust Bowl Diary
May 30, 2018
Free2BD and I decided to take a drive in the convertible up East Animas Road. It was one of those days when the cotton-ball clouds gave a certain gravitas to the endless depths of blue sky, and texture to the surrounding mountains, dappled with shadow.
We enjoyed the leisurely pace of the winding county road, discussing both serious and inconsequential matters. The wind knit our hair into an amateurish tangle that we would struggle to unravel later, but we didn’t mind.
Our first destination was Baker’s Bridge.
Baker’s Bridge crosses a narrow canyon of the Animas River about 15 miles north of Durango, Colorado. It boasts a couple claims to fame. In 1969, the cliff-jumping scene in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” was filmed there.
More recently, in 2015, a few kayakers were caught there by surprise – by a photographer and by the swirling mustardy-toxic water from the Gold King Mine spill. It’s the iconic picture from the disaster.
The view from Baker’s Bridge looking south (E. Lyon 2013)
Today, though, the clear green water set off the black igneous rocks where sunbathers relished the perfect weather. Free2BD and I finished our iced chai, then continued on up to the Purgatory Ski Area.
After strolling through the summer activities, not yet in full swing, we climbed back in the car and blasted down the highway back to town.
Less than 48 hours later, much of the glorious green scenery we’d been admiring would go up in smoke.
June 1, 2018
I went to town at 9 a.m. to help Free2BD hang her art at the city rec center. About an hour later, I headed home, south of town. On the northern horizon, a billowing grey plume arose.
As I ascended the stairs at home, I heaved a huge sigh. “What’s up?” said The Putterer.
“We’re on fire” I said with dismay.
Sunset colors the smoke plume of the 416 Fire viewed from about 20 miles south (E. Lyon 2018)
It wasn’t really a surprise. The Four Corners has been in an “exceptional drought” since last fall, the worst in more than a century. It exceeds even 2002, the year of our last big wildfire – Missionary Ridge. That conflagration torched over 72,000 acres and several homes were lost.
The “416 Fire” has covered half that much in just the past two weeks, but fortunately no structures or lives have been lost. Thousands have been displaced by evacuations. The humidity hovers below 8%, effectively dust-dry.
Droughts, of course, are nothing new, not even in this corner of the world. We live in a desert climate, even in a good year. Average annual rainfall is under 20 inches. We rely heavily on snowpack in the mountains to fill rivers, reservoirs, and irrigation ditches.
Precipitation at our house from October through December 2017 amounted to less than a quarter-inch of moisture, mostly rain. From January through June 15th this year, the total is a scant 2.58 inches. On May 1st the snowpack in the San Juan Mountains was just 16% of average.
In 1984, Ann Marie Low published her 50-year-old diary, written during the Dust Bowl and Depression years (1927 – 1937). She lived in North Dakota, roughly 200 miles from where my ancestors lived in South Dakota.
My grandma Reatha’s diary from 1932 reflects a teenage girl concerned primarily with school activities and a robust social life. Ann Marie, just a few years older, clearly had deeper concerns, as the drought devastated her family’s farm and livelihood, giving us a first-hand account of those hard times.
Clearly the environment of the northern Great Plains in the 1930s was vastly different than southwestern Colorado in the 21st century. But a lack of water is a lack of water. Without it, we die.
The drought here certainly doesn’t (yet) reach the epic proportions of the Dust Bowl days, but water scarcity is going to be a growing concern as we deal with the effects of climate change.
This series, called The Drought Diaries, will give you a window into droughts: in different places, at different times. I will share some of Ann Marie’s, and others’ perspectives, as well as my own. It will be a personal reflection of how drought affects the people and businesses that must deal with the lack of rain and snow.
I will also aim to show what we’ve learned about dealing with drought, and what we still get wrong. I can’t venture to say what the future will hold, but we must be willing to make changes.
The smoke generates a pyrocumulus cloud above the 416 Fire. (E. Lyon 2018)
June 16, 2018
We had a nice, gentle rain off and on today. Nearly a quarter inch fell. The firefighters and evacuees must be rejoicing. It’s the first moisture in over three weeks.
June 17, 2018
About 4:30 this morning, the deluge began. In a little over two hours, more than an inch had fallen. Sounds wonderful, but it does nothing to ease the dry fuel load everywhere. Worse, the scorched earth repels the water, rather than absorbing it. Flash floods were expected below the burned areas. We’ll await the news.
Peonies after the rain (E. Lyon 2018)
Clematis after the rain (E. Lyon 2018)
Feature image: Cottonwood trees along our road that were killed this spring by a “controlled” burn on adjacent Southern Ute tribal land. (E. Lyon, 2018)
Source for snowpack information: https://www.wcc.nrcs.usda.gov/ftpref/data/water/wcs/basinsweplots/co/basinplotsjadsm18.gif