The summer (and winter) of our discontent
Mother Nature can be so cruel. Such are the rhythms of her seasons that we cannot be sure if she has changed the rules or is simply teaching us a planetary lesson in the effects of global warming. Let’s remember that while we’re suffering from drought, some regions, such as the residents along the Gulf of Mexico, have been deluged with more water than they can handle. A warm winter followed by a seemingly perfect spring was followed by the hottest summer on record and the driest season since the 1950s. The past two summers of drought in the Ozarks and the hottest temperatures on record nationwide have unsettled even the most stalwart wooly worm watcher. Farmers surely have it the worst, but their consequences affect all of us. It’s the same with water. There is serious talk of curtailed use and crop losses are grist for stories daily. Instead of four alfalfa cuttings, there have often been two. Farmers worry about failed crops and livestock poisoned by concentrated nitrates in silage and aqua-toxins in grain that can also be deadly, though not to humans. Because they can’t feed larger herds, cattle and hog farmers are selling their breeding stock. First strike: prices plummet; second strike; then, when herds are thin, prices are likely to soar until herds are replenished. Third strike: some farmers and businesses won’t make it. In all of this, it can be hard to find a cloud, let alone a silver lining. Even a visit from the remains of Hurricane Isaac could do no better than equal the average September rainfall in the Ozarks. Soil moisture has been dropping to 60-72 inches below the surface; the water table is 40 feet below normal; annual rainfall is on average 14-16 inches below normal according to Gene Hatch of the National Weather Service. More of the same is predicted well into fall. But who really knows? If Springfield’s urban water reserves fall to 60 percent (now 63.9), there will be a 15 percent rate increase for water usage and harsh limits on consumption to replace the voluntary measures in effect now. And while Springfield often seems to be the only community preaching conservation, long-term supplies are secure for at least the next 35 years, thanks to water rights purchased from Stockton Lake in the 1990s. Other communities, notably Joplin, have been warned for years of a dwindling water supply. The worst tornado in memory did not alleviate the problem; it only delayed the discussion of what to do. Let’s be clear; none of us will die of thirst. Water abounds. You can buy it in a bottle. Compare that with the price of gasoline. So how do we find something to feel hopeful about in a year when just about anything that can go wrong probably has – or will? There is plenty to make us feel confident. Ideas you’ve probably never heard of are being put forth. Unfortunately, the biggest headlines are less about possibilities and good ideas for conservation of resources than whose birth certificate and tax return is on the table. This should be our wakeup call to do more; hence there is plenty to think about in this issue of GREENE Magazine: The Water Issue. It is time for all of us to realize that there are many steps we could take, one by one. Much of what we could do is not even inconvenient. In one of its online newsletters, Mother Earth News, published in Topeka, listed five different ways that the average household could save 1,000 gallons of water a year. These include shorter showers, washing dishes less often, turning off the water while you brush teeth, curtailing non-essential watering of lawns, and the oldest bromide: fix the leaky toilet that is silently running up your water bill. Nothing really radical here, is there? You wouldn’t even miss it. But as Loring Bullard writes, you can easily save your own rainwater at home with a simple collection system. Industries and big box stores could “harvest” thousands of gallons of rooftop and parking lot runoff. Storage is the challenge, but Loring’s larger point is that we need to rethink water conservation on a community scale and beyond. In Orange County, Calif., and in some arid towns in Texas, they are already recycling treated effluent from sewer systems, having learned the technology from the space program. In our premier issue (now two years ago with this issue), we noted that tiny Highlandville, Mo., is treating water more effectively and for 30 percent less money using chemicals purchased locally. Indeed, only five communities (Springfield, Joplin, Branson, Lamar and Neosho), utilize surface water. Most pump from wells. Even if the recent weather patterns were the “new normal,” there is plenty we can do both individually and in our various communities to conserve water, store it when we have more than we need, and recycle what we have. No matter where you live, you can take action. Wouldn’t it be helpful if the candidates for public office were to discuss how we might move forward to conserve water instead of whining and spending billions on advertising? What if we could invest just a fraction of the millions the various industry lobbying groups spend pointing the finger at one another on on solutions to help us conserve water and live more wisely. Now there’s the real drought: the serious dearth of discussion for a crisis already here. Meanwhile, it’s not doing us any favors to fool with Mother Nature. She always seems to have the last word.