Dec 13, 2013

The View from another Angle

This is our first winter in 17 years to be away from our Little Canada home and Savage Lake. Right now, we're parked above what used to be a giant New Mexico lake, Elephant Butte Lake State Park, and I can't help reflect on the turn of events that changed the climate so drastically for people in this area and how that same sort of change would affect us in Minnesota.

This is the view from outside of our RV. What isn't obvious is that the "lake" is barely a pond. All of that sandy "beach" you see between the water and the edge of the campsites used to be underwater. Suffering from a decade-long drought, New Mexico has become "the driest state in the nation"; but not by much. When we left Texas, we drove past dozens of dry or nearly-dry man-made lakes, most of which were surrounded by abandoned or down-scaled mansions that reflected an opulent lifestyle gone wrong.

When our VW-based Winnebago suffered electronic problems due to exposure to 350 miles of ice, sleet, and snow in western Texas, we stayed with friends in a small town south of Albuquerque while waiting for car repairs. At first, we were a little surprised at how decimated their yard was; just like all of the yards in this part of New Mexico. Our dog never figured out how to deal with the overwhelming tack-burrs that covered a good bit of their backyard. When they explained that they have been under water-rationing rules for about ten years and even had to let their fruit trees die to comply with water regulations, the condition of the yard seemed minor in comparison. Their descriptions of how lush and green the area was when they first moved here, 15 years ago, seemed completely incompatible with the place we've experienced.

On this trip, we've passed thousands of acres of abandoned grape vineyards, apple orchards that appear to be either dead or dying, and some of the most parched farm land I've seen in my lifetime. So far, this drought isn't up to the historical worst years of the area, but it's not over yet.

I've been surprised at how callously and carelessly Minnesotans treat lakes and rivers, coming from a near-desert state, Kansas, and having spent several years in places where water was about as accessible as oil. Our little "watershed" is a good example of how a neighborhood, city, state, and nation (considering the abusive way the Interstate intersected the lake) can blow off one resource because there are others more substantial. The state DNR (Does Not Respond?) plays games with pretending to be working at eradicating invasive weeds downstream from Savage Lake, while ignoring the fact that our lake is a seed bed for these plants, upstream from the treatment. MNDOT uses the lake to drain off sediment and contamination from the freeway, clogging their own drains with runoff and slowly filling the lake with sand and salt. The county and  city salt the roads and washes sediment directly into the lake, filling the edges with sediment and contamination. The attitude seems to be "We have 'real lakes' and water in abundance, why worry about this little pond?" Texas and New Mexico used to have "real lakes," too. Now they'd be happy to have clean drinking water and enough water to manage minimal agriculture.

There are been three major droughts in this area in the last 75 years, including the Dust Bowl years. A large part of the country is going without water for normal activities and we might be wise to pay attention to what happens when the most precious resource on the planet goes away. This flashing photo depicts Elephant Butte Lake in 1994, at 89% of capacity, and this past September, at 3% capacity. It doesn't take long for a precious resource to vanish.