The long term consequences of drought
With temperatures blasting thermometers into triple digit range and no measurable precipitation in sight, it is hard to imagine we have an iceberg to contend with. You may not realize it is there, but it sits there shimmering in all its hidden glory smack dab in the middle of this desert we call Utah.
Not since the early 50's has the state endured as long lasting period of time without measurable precipitation as it is now experiencing. Many changes over the past 50 years have worked together to intensify the effects of the current dry period, effects that will most likely be felt for many years to come.
Utah Agriculture Commissioner Cary Peterson, however, remains optimistic;
"Drought is nothing new to us. We will share what resources we have, rethink how we do business, and like those who have worked the land before us, look to tomorrow for crop-saving rains."
Reloading may not be enough as the long-term problems extend beyond agrarian needs.
The dry spells of the 50's, while damaging, pale in comparison to the problems being met today. Environmental infighting has prevented the thinning of forests through logging and prescribed burns. Throw in development along the urban-interface with the drought and you have a multifaceted problem for the forests.
Trees already stressed by unchecked growth are now drying out due to lack of water. The trees are no longer able to maintain their natural defenses against pests and become vulnerable to infestation. The dry trees, which have been and will be attacked by these pests, now become kindling for any kind of fire. Again, this is still the tip of the iceberg.
The grasses and shrubs which cattle, sheep and wildlife use to graze on are virtually nonexistent due to the drought. What forage and browse the animals can find is mostly the remnants of last year's growth and is nothing more than fuel for potential fires.
Ranchers are selling off their livestock in an effort to head off starvation. The wild animals that roam freely in the mountains and plains will be headed into a winter ill-prepared for what lies ahead. Many will starve to death others will be forced into urban areas in search of food. These issues still just mask the underlying and long-term problems.
Bear and mountain lion will wander into human-populated areas in search of sustinance. The bear cub population this season is almost certainly going to be lost. Deer and elk herds have already calved but the young will be lost either to the sparse diet of their mothers or the lack of forage for themselves.
We have all heard the water woes, but these still waters also run much deeper. Already hydroelectric power generation in the state has been cut in half due to the low flows. Thirsty municipalities are seeing their wells dry up and are trying to tap into conservation pools necessary for the survival of fish.
Are we sailing the Titanic unknowingly into this iceberg? We hope not. Land and wildlife managers are working tirelessly in an effort to limit the damage. Special hunts have been ordered to help thin the elk and deer herds ravaged by the drought. The daily limit on fish has been increased in an attempt to fend off problems. Restrictions have been placed on the use of fire and fireworks. Emergency declarations have been made to help farmers and ranchers try to salvage their crops and livestock. Energy and water conservation efforts are lead items on television and newspapers.
These efforts are the best bandage we can offer at this time. But what does the future hold for the state? Can we allow the potential fire fuels to grow unchecked, leading to larger and more devastating fires, or can we manage the vegetation to achieve a more harmonious situation? Can we allow the wildland urban interface to continue its rapid growth without suffering the costs of additional fire suppression? Can we adequately meet the water needs for not only human consumption but also for wildlife and livestock?
Utah is mostly a desert; planning and conservation efforts must not be mounted just in times of crisis, but all the time. A few lifestyle changes and with proper management of our natural resources, we can weather this storm and many others that may follow, allowing smooth sailing around hidden obstacles.