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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Drought


Since I came back to Houston, it became readily apparent how extensive the damage a drought and high temperatures can be. While I've been fond of the sky-scapes and the trees and what greenery is around, I'd have to be far blinder than I am to miss the sere fields of grass, the blanched roots, and trees that had this not been summer, would have looked quite at home in a fall setting.

The first time I recall seeing drought conditions was in southern California around 1977. Rolling terrain was either tan or gray for as far as the eye could see. I forget how long California's drought lasted, but it was long and extensive and had repercussions beyond California's borders. Texas has been in drought since Christmas, I believe, and there doesn't seem to be any long-range prediction that it will come to an end soon. It may not be the worst drought on record, but that doesn't mean it's inconsequential. I'd go so far to say that although certain areas are in better shape now than in previous droughts, at issue is that there the population is considerably larger and there are greater demands being made on infrastructure.

Of course, people will say that hurricane season's coming and this should alleviate drought conditions along the Gulf Coast; however, that does nothing for the rest of the state nor by extension, for other states similarly afflicted. Moreover, there's no guarantee that high winds and rain from hurricanes might not do more harm than good nor that drought conditions will resume in force in the post-hurricane season.

One thing that becomes readily apparent in strolling around Houston is the aridity of the soil. It's not just that the prolonged exposure to the sun has burnt lawn and field; it's the cracking of the soil underneath and the lack of ability to move mineral to plant that water provides, as well as rejuvenating the soil with a regular rain cycle. Additionally, at this point, high winds and heavy rain might be just as likely (in not more likely) to contribute to washing away topsoil and contributing more to erosion than to the gradual soaking into the earth healthy soil requires.

This may seem idiotic to post, but in case anyone has never considered the consequences of drought (deforestation, desertification and almost uninhabitable terrain) from a naturalist's perspective, it might be worthwhile to consider those consequences from an economic and societal perspective. That said, I'm going to skirt energy usage and the health hazards for a bit and focus on the immediate environmental consequences.

The most obvious change for the suburbanite is the degradation of one's lawn and water rationing. Right now, people are still using watering at will (although I've seen several signs posted about the required times to water the lawn.) At this level, this is probably more of an inconvenience than a hardship. However, when water bills increase and fines are levied, this will be a different matter.

On a wider level and with much broader consequences, is what this means to ranchers and farmers. Not merely a matter of irrigation, the other issues are soil depletion and disruption of life-cycles in the various ecosystems any given ranch or farm might find itself. It's a no-brainer that if you can't get water to crops, there's going to be issues, but that's only part of the problem; if plants aren't able to survive in the surrounding area, incests and bugs that sustain the ecosystem and the pollination and soil fertilization necessary to keep the ground healthy vanish. This adds an additional burden to the farmer to find alternative provision for soil health. For the rancher, this means grazing land is depleted and livestock going hungry. In turn, this brings on a disruption in birth-rates. Livestock isn't going to be reproducing at the same rate, thus additional economic burdens on the rancher, as well.

Thus, produce and livestock prices will increase from supplier to market to consumer. If any state relief is found, this could be added to the tax structures, too. In as much as food supply shouldn't have an impact on fuel prices, impacts will be felt in other sectors beside grocery retail; consider restaurants, institutional supply and any animal or produce to be exported outside the region. If you think this is so much fustian, ask yourself what the principle ingredients for beer are; barley, hops, water. In drought conditions, all three are likely to be increasingly scarce, thus the down-market cost to the consumer will go up accordingly. Indeed, given how many ingredients are derivative from animal by-product or vegetable components, expect to see non-food-related commodities also rise in price.

I weary of the reaction from people who say “oh, well, that's too bad” and move on without realizing that what transpires in one part of the country will eventually effect them in theirs. I've seen this play out several times in my life since the late seventies. It could be as small as price hikes in grapes, the result of labor disputes in California or you might see it in four-dollar-a-gallon for gas in reaction to issues between petroleum companies and OPEC or you might just see it in your taxes because interstate highways are in disrepair. The difference is that these issues can be handled since they're created by humans. Taxes suck, higher gas prices blow and no one wants produce to go up; however, prices based on these issues can be adjusted and stabilized both by market forces, mediation and legislation. A drought brings devastation for which no market adjustment can be readily made (except that consumers will wind up buying goods from other places than those produced in the regions afflicted.)

These were some of the thoughts that came to me as I took another pass through Memorial Park and Allen Parkway. The trees are still mostly green, but thousands have died in Memorial Park alone and as you can see from the pictures, the ground isn't green.

Aside from radical irrigation systems and aggressive fertilization, I don't know what else can be done to stave off the reduction of the Rio Grande and Red Rivers to mere trickles or what to do for the farmers and ranchers across the state and the region (this drought is bigger than Texas). It will be interesting to see how populations respond to this. Typically, people leave when goods get too costly and when the environment grows too uncomfortable to inhabit. If the record temperatures return as the drought moves on, electricity usage will continue to rise and this, too, will have noticeable consequences for the consumer.

In the end, though, this isn't just about consumer economics. The implications for the country are larger. What do we do with population transfer when regions become less viable to grow on? What changes take place in societies when conditions grow harsher, particularly in larger geo-social areas like the United States (or Brazil or India or China)? We have some serious problems facing mankind as a whole on the horizon in this twenty-first century. The drought in Texas is one in a series of those; it's an indicator of what to expect since nature doesn't recognize boundaries or political parties.

As dire as this sounds, there's also the counterbalance that things are not always as bleak in present or potential terms, as they seem (or as some would like them, perversely, to be). My sense is that as dystopic as some scenarios can be (and we all love a good dystopia), things never quite play out as dramatically as we see in movies or books. China has survived multiple famines and ecologic disasters. While the U.S. doesn't cover the same amount of land mass, our population is considerably smaller and I'm inclined to believe that we have both intellectual and economic resources at hand that could aid in developing solutions to internal problems.

The larger issue is how much of an impact does any given environmental problem have on our neighbors and/or our relations beyond the geographic range of the North American continent. It hasn't happened yet; but if we look at recent environmental catastrophes in Asia (the most recent being the combined earthquake/tsunami in Japan), we should develop a heightened awareness of potential issues and have in place a variety of solutions to any such given catastrophe.

Additional resources and references:






http://are.berkeley.edu/courses/EEP101/Detail%20Notes%20PDF/Cha18,%20Economics%20of%20Drought.pdf

http://www.treesforhouston.org/assets/files/Severe%20Drought%20Killing%20Houston-Fox%2026%20News.pdf

Following are three sets of before/after photos from earlyAugust compared to today, September 6. The earlier photos are on the left. Note that the earlier photos were taken on a cloudy day and that set 3, while shot from the same general area is taken from a considerably different vantage point. To view full-size, click on the image.

Set 1:


Set 2: 


Set 3:










Rather than load up this entry with sixty some-odd photos, I've compiled them into a slideshow. These images are from Memorial Park as well as Allen Parkway and again, it might be that the trees for the most part look green; but a) not all of them are and b) it's the sere ground that's the most tell-tale proof of a lack of water.



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