Thursday, December 04, 2008

Our Flood Adventures

1. Our Early Flood Experiences

When I first moved here in 1973, I didn’t give much thought to flooding. The previous occupant had carved a niche for his little travel trailer into the high ground next to the highway overlooking the Rio Grande, and this seemed good enough for me. (I had a casual, hippy-dippy attitude in those days.) Everything worked just fine for over 30 years, but Mother Nature had other plans. Like flood victims everywhere, I share the lament, “If only I had known!”

My first introduction to the reality of having a river as my neighbor came the very first summer, 1974. I had built a little hay shed out in the pasture, and I awoke one morning to find the pasture – and my shed full of hay – flooded with about 18” of water. This was to be the first of many pasture floods. They followed a pattern typical of all rivers: whenever a river floods, it drops most of its sediment right at the very edge, forming a natural levee. The land further from the river is lower than at the edge of the river. In our case, this means that whenever the river rises even an inch or two higher than the natural levee, the basin behind it fills with about 18” of water. This, I could handle. Flooding always leaves a sloppy mess behind, but at least the pasture gets a good irrigation. And for more than 20 years, this seemed to be the pattern. Some summers we’d get flooded a time or two, maybe even three times. Then, we could go up to 5 years without a flood.

The flood of 1995 was our first out-of-the-ordinary flooding experience. After several years of heavy snowpacks, all the lakes – from Caballo Lake all the way north to Colorado – were full to overflowing. The dam authorities have a mandate to store as much irrigation water as possible, with no thought given to what happens downstream when the lakes are full and the spillways start to overflow. (Once the spillways overflow, the water flow is out of control.) So when Elephant Butte and Caballo Lakes started to overflow, and the river starting carrying an uncontrolled amount of water, our pasture quickly flooded to a depth of about 2½ feet... and stayed that way for several weeks. Ducks and carp were swimming in our front yard. My garden, which was now barely above water level, started to die. The roots were flooded, and the plants died day by day, right in front of my helpless, horrified eyes. It had been a good garden, too – that year I had planted 12 different potato varieties as an experiment, and the plants were doing very well. Not to mention all the usual garden plants – tomatoes, peppers, squash, melons – all dead within a week. Laura called the authorities and cried into the phone, to no avail. Welcome to life in the floodplain, kids!

After the water finally subsided, I planted a bunch of cucumber seeds in the soggy soil, figuring the dirt would soon dry out, and I had an excellent crop of cucumbers in late summer into the fall. That winter I bought a couple of truckloads of “topsoil” (ironic quotes intentional), and a steaming, stinking, truckload of cow manure. I hired a guy with a Bobcat to first cover the old garden with new dirt (to raise it, I hoped, above flood level) and then spread a layer of manure that I could rototill in. It turns out I way overdid the manure. The garden became a sodden, septic mess – there wasn’t enough air for the friendly aerobic bacteria, so the garden basically turned into a sewer. I rototilled it a few times that next summer, and eventually things returned to normal. Live and learn, I suppose.

We had a bit of a breather for the next few years, but then our house got flooded for the first time on Aug. 3, 1999. It started out as a normal pasture flood, so I thought nothing of it. But the water kept on rising. (As we learned later, this flood was caused by 6” of rain the previous night in the southern part of the Black Range, which dumped an extraordinary amount of water into the river.) We were constantly thinking, “Surely it will stop rising now!” but the water kept on rising. After an hour or so it had reached the porch in front of Neil’s bedroom door (Neil’s bedroom was at the lowest level of our house). We started emptying everything out of his bedroom. The water kept rising, very slow and stately -- an irresistible force of nature. After about an hour we had everything out of his room except for the heaviest furniture.

Into the house the water came, slow and relentless. It only flooded Neil’s bedroom a couple of inches deep, but left a total mess behind. His wall-to-wall carpet was soaked with muddy water. I was concerned that the wooden floor would rot. My philosophy is, “When in doubt, do nothing,” so we just abandoned the room for four months. Neil slept on the sofa in the living room. The first month, we just left all the windows open and ran a fan 24 hours a day to dry everything out as quickly as possible. Then we just waited. We had plenty of other things to do.

We were finally able to attack the cleanup job in early December, and it wasn’t too bad. The wooden floor was still sound. The dried mud on the surface had cracked into a thousand pieces, and was easy to remove. We vacuumed the carpet a couple of times, and rented a Rug Doctor to give a carpet a good steam cleaning. Everything was as good as new, pretty much. Then we moved everything back into Neil’s room, and he was back in business, roomwise.

After that, we had a series of dry years, with no flooding whatsoever. Things seemed back to normal. Then came the Monsoon from Hell.

Next Installment: The Great Flood of ‘06


Anonymous Jacques Conejo said...

You have an uncanny knack for leaving the reader hanging. Arghhh.

Good to see you writing about the "flood" factor. I think most of us here in the dry, sunny and relatively climate stable Southwest are exempt from first-hand, direct exposure to the powerful forces our planet blithely and indiscriminately demonstrates. While much of the world experiences overwhelming climate impact on a regular basis, our local population is to some degree insulated from our inevitable connection and in denial of our vulnerability.

Thanks again for bringing important, yet oft ignored observations to the fore.

7:14 AM  

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