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Tales of drought and despair

How dry is it?

Well, my friend Fritz bought a rain barrel, but to get any use out of it, he has to fill it from the garden hose.

Some people encourage their plants by talking to them, so in lieu of moisture, I thought I'd entertain the garden plants that way.

Their favorite story is "Noah's flood."

I didn't expect the plants to talk back, of course, so it took me a while to trace the tinny little voice to its source -- a wilted clump of bindweed. "Kill ... me ... " it whimpered. "Please ... kill ... me!"

"I would if I could," I chuckled, "but nothing I try on you ever seems to work."

"


- you," it replied.

Next I tried just waving the hose back and forth over the plants, without turning on the water.

"It's all natural," I boasted.

Just a placebo, but a third of them perked right up.

It's not uncommon to see birds taking a dry dust "bath" to discourage mites, but my attention was drawn to a circle of grackles bobbing and posturing in the driest part of the yard. Each ducked (or grackled) its head, then raised its beak to the sky, as peristaltic movements rippled down its neck.

There wasn't actually any water there, but it was one of the most convincing mirages they or I had ever seen. I was tempted to go wading.

Bird numbers are down, though -- many eggs were poached before they could hatch.

This is a good year for "companion planting." I planted corn, onions and potatoes in the same row. The onions make the potatoes' eyes water, which irrigates the corn.

I went fishing yesterday -- in the front yard. With a pellet gun. Got a couple flatheads, but they weren't good eating -- their bodies were flat too. Their canteens were completely empty. Also, they had ticks.

I realized the fishing might be good when a crappie showed up at the front door and asked to borrow a cup of run-off. A game warden told me many fish are reaching "keeper" size before they ever have a chance to learn to swim.

Had to call Belva to come get me in the Walmart parking lot this morning. Someone siphoned my radiator.

The proceeds from Red Cross blood drives are being labeled "blood concentrate" and shipped to California for reconstitution. After contributing, blood donors still are offered a cookie, but no juice; just a pre-moistened towelette.

One of my neighbors stapled bacon strips to his fruit trees to attract stray dogs. But when the dogs raised their legs, only a salty yellow syrup came out, which just made the trees thirstier.

The local water shortage has been worse since someone stole the water tower. The perps left the scrap metal scattered along a country road, but the water has not been recovered. A federal law enforcement drug squad estimates the street value of the missing water at $970 billion, almost as high as their figures for a kilo of confiscated Mexican pot.

Water park patrons are now required to pee in the pool. The entire shallow end has been closed off to bathers.

But seriously, folks, we're rapidly approaching the time when "watering restrictions" should not be limited to a few months every year.

The profligate water consumption devoted to amenities like lawns and parks cannot continue, at least with such gross inefficiency. Spraying water into the air is cheaper and simpler than drip irrigation -- but only for now.

The downside of spray irrigation is a matter of physics. The high surface-to-volume ratio of spray fosters rapid evaporation. Add heat and wind -- any time of day), not just noon to seven -- and precious water just dissipates in the air, or off the surfaces of plants and soil, before it can even be absorbed and used.

The two main sources of agricultural water loss (gardens, too) are evaporation and transpiration. The latter occurs when the plant moves moisture from the soil up into leaves and stems, from which it is "exhaled" as water vapor. Transpiration is inevitable, but much can be done to curtail evaporation.

"Hiding" the irrigation helps. That is, it should be hard to tell if irrigation is happening just by looking -- no sprays or open ditches. Concealing water, during and after delivery to the plants, drops evaporative losses. When this is done appropriately, time of day doesn't matter.

Some drought-friendly cultivars exist. Kansas buffalo grass "lawns" out-survive Kentucky bluegrass. Water-saving tech will not remain a mere option much longer.

Far and away, the greatest use of our water resources comes from agricultural applications, much more than municipal or even industrial uses. Our culture faces some dramatic diet changes as the climate warms and weather systems oscillate between increasingly destructive extremes. It is simply inefficient, viewed in terms of either energy consumption or water use, to water and harvest plants and then feed them to (edible) animals.

The Ogallala aquifer still contains water from the glaciers that covered North America 10,000 years ago. Converting fossil water into a substitute for fossil fuel is short-sighted and indefensible. Yet we burn fuel and sap water reserves to make fuel (ethanol) at a rate that barely breaks even, in terms of whether energy gained exceeds energy spent.

When the drinking water's gone, and you still can drive, where will you go?

Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired family physician who grew up in Stockton and now lives outside Hays.

hauxwell@ruraltel.net