More on the definition of “drought”: a dry spot

Another episode in my effort to explore the meaning of “drought” by way of example.

Tramway wetland, November 2012

Tramway wetland, November 2012

Up on Albuquerque’s north side is a spot the birders call the “Tramway wetland”*. It’s the spot where the main flood control channel for much of Albuquerque slows before entering the Rio Grande. The local flood control authority has designed a wide shallows to catch the water and allow grody gunk to settle out, to reduce the amount of urban runoff contamination entering the river. It usually smells bad and looks even worse, but the birds, especially migrating shorebirds, love it because it’s one of the few large areas of shallow water in a stretch of river that once would have had much shallow water, before humans used dams and levees to break it of its meandering ways.

More than once I have taken my sandwich and binoculars to the Tramway wetland, which is not far from my office, at lunch. Smell notwithstanding, the birding is great. I’ve seen 50 species there, and the eBird reports for the site list 191 species.

I was out on Friday looking for a rare dunlin that several birders had spotted, and was amazed at how little water there was in the wetland. Just a few pools in the deepest spots, far less than usual. There are two things likely going on here. The first is “drought” by the conventional definition: not a whole lot of rain. Since Sept. 1, we’ve had just 0.55 inches (1.4 cm) of rain at the rain gauge at the airport. Average for  this stretch is 2.58 inches (6.55 cm). So there’s less rain flowing down the flood control system and out into the wetland.

The second effect is distinctly anthropogenic.

In addition to rain, the flood control system gets some water when Albuquerque’s municipal water agency starts up one of its big groundwater pumps. They flush an initial pulse of water into the flood control system, which makes its way down to the wetland. Albuquerque has shifted some of its demand to surface water, using a dam along the Rio Grande to divert water for municipal use. This seems to mean less pump flushing, and therefore less “wasted” water flowing into the Tramway wetland.

Here, I think, there is drought.

There were still a dozen sandhill cranes, drought or not, poking around in the barely-wetland, plus a great blue heron, some odds and ends of ducks that I really felt sorry for poking around in the mudholes that are left. And maybe the dunlin. Couldn’t be sure as it took flight, so I didn’t add it to my life list.

* The bridge in the picture is actually Fourth Street NW, or maybe Second Street NW (a confusing intersection), which turns into Roy Road, which eventually turns into the road we call Tramway. Don’t ask me why it’s not therefore the “Fourth Street wetland”. I just do as I’m told.

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    by Wayne Lusvardi

    What we need is a new drought vocabulary in California. It seems that every type of shortage of water in California is called a drought. And logically speaking, if everything is called a drought, nothing is.

    Typically, we associate the word drought with a water shortage condition of natural origin. But not every “drought” is a drought. Some water shortages we call drought are thought mostly to be natural, some climatological, some judicial, some demographic, and some regulatory. But they all end up being called drought. When in doubt, call everything a drought seems to be the rule.

    So a lawsuit-induced drought may be disguised as a natural drought. That’s the situation in California today as a 3-year natural drought condition is covering for a court-ordered shut off of 85% of water to Southern California due to an environmental lawsuit to protect the Sacramento Delta Smelt fish. But if the natural drought subsides, what then will we call our water shortage situation? Drought seems a most inappropriate term to call a court-ordered shortage of water due to an environmental lawsuit when there may be an abundance of water available.

    Drought is a near-permanent normal condition in California, especially in Southern California. But even in dry Southern California enough water flows to the sea in a typical rainy winter week to supply the population for a year. So what we experience as “drought” is the lack of water capture and storage (i.e., slippage). What we conventionally call a drought in California is the unpredictable skipping of a peak rainfall year which typically supplies an overflow of water sufficient to fill reservoirs to last for farmers and coastal cities a few years.

    In California, much of the landscape has Spanish names derived from the days of the Mexican land grants. Even weather conditions, such as El Nino and La Nina (“Little Boy” or Little Girl” or “the Christ child”), are derived from the Spanish language. (El Nino means El Nino Southern Oscillation ocean water temperature phenomenon which influences terrestrial weather and rainfall). So if we are to look for another set of names to nuance all the different types of drought, perhaps we should look to Spanish words.

    As stated above, what we conventionally call a drought is the missing of a peak rainfall year to fill up reservoirs and snow pack to last for a few years of normal drought. So we need a word in Spanish that means the lack of a peak wet year.
    In Spanish, the word “punta” means peak.

    The prefix “a” means “none,” “lack of,” “without,” “absence of.”
    Putting the prefix “a” in front of the Spanish work “punta” results in the word “apunta.”

    So perhaps what we should call most of our droughts is an “apunta” or “apunta ano;” meaning the absence of a peak rainfall year. Use of the word or phrase would take getting accustomed to. But at least it more accurately describes what we call “drought” in California. Which raises another question: what then do we call other water shortage conditions drought?

    Other obvious terms come to mind such as:

    Judicial apunta – a court-ordered water shortfall
    Regulatory apunta – a legislative water shortfall
    Toxic apunta – a water shortfall caused mainly by pollution
    Eco apunta – an environmentally caused water shortfall
    Demographic apunta – a population-induced water shortfall
    La Nina apunta – a water shortfall from the Southern Oscillation oceanwater temperature
    Ag apunta – a water shortfall caused mainly by farmers switching to permanent all-year round crops
    Junta apunta – the humorous sounding but perhaps serious term referring to a water shortfall caused by a council or small legislative body in a government militantly seizing power (e.g., the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan – an inland sea intentionally shrunk to the status of a lake and wasteland resulting from Stalin’s central planning in the 1950’s).
    Junta punta – a term referring to the aggregation of water caused by centralized planning (e.g., when the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California built the Colorado Aqueduct and spillage resulted in the creation of the Salton Sea in Southwestern California).
    UNTA punta – a totally unserious term meaning an accidental spill of water caused by some bureaucratic agency (e.g., like the United Nations Transitional Authority).

    Which evokes the following poem:
    In California it may be better to call a drought an apunta, ?But don’t dare call it a junta, ?Even if the legislature is like the UNTA.*??(*United Nations Transitional Authority)

    All kidding aside, California needs better drought terminology. Calling every water shortfall a drought is a word drought in itself.
    Words are often used in bad faith. They are used to obscure human responsibility. As sociologist Peter L. Berger states: “bad faith is to pretend something is necessary that is in fact voluntary.” The word drought is used to serve as a cover for man-made drought. What is ultimately man-made is instead made out to be caused by nature.

    This is much like the term “earthquake damage.” Earthquakes are mostly harmless if standing on open ground. It is man-made buildings, not earthquakes which are natural and normal in places like California and Japan, that are the real problem. The same could be said for hurricanes (e.g., Hurricane Katrina).
    Nuancing better terms for drought in California may be a first step toward better public education about water management no matter what terms may eventually gain acceptance by the public. But for now the terms “apunta” or “apunta ano” are proposed to begin a dialogue on better drought terminology for eventual adoption by the media and California’s nomenklatura.

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