Friday, September 10, 2010

Falling Into Fall

This is my latest Grasroots Press column:

For the past couple of years I’ve wanted to revive “Signs of the Seasons,” a column I wrote for the Las Cruces Bulletin in 1986-88, but have always gotten sidetracked by more “serious” topics. But obviously, whatever’s going to happen will happen whether I write about it or not. So why not write about something I love?

I have lived literally on the bank of the Rio Grande north of Radium Springs since 1973. As a beekeeper, gardener, and orchardist, I spend a lot of time outdoors, and have come to appreciate “life beyond the shopping malls.” I’d like to share some of my observations of our marvelous area with you.

We had a wet but relatively short monsoon this year – 8.57 inches of rain in slightly over two months. We’ve had six wetter monsoons since I started keeping rainfall records in1982, but in most of these the rainfall was spread over a longer period of time. Remarkably, the climate experts ( didn’t predict a wet monsoon this year even as it was happening.

I’ve been looking for possible shifts in the Southwest monsoon rainfall due to global heating, but so far the data are all over the place. Since 2004 we’ve had alternate wet/dry monsoons, varying from 3.12 to 13.25 inches. Our two wettest monsoons were 2006 and 2008, with 11.90 and 13.25 inches, respectively. Some readers might remember the notorious 2006 “Monsoon from Hell” which caused disastrous flooding in Alamogordo, El Paso, Hatch, and Radium Springs. That year, we had 10” of rain in slightly over a month.

There seems to be more of a climate shift regarding the winter snowpack at the headwaters of the Rio Grande. Less snow is falling on average, and the springs are getting warmer, earlier. Those warm spring winds cause the snow to evaporate rather than melt, which reduces the runoff. We’ve long taken for granted the elegant simplicity of utilizing mountain snowpack for irrigation purposes. Ideally, the snow accumulates all winter, melts in the spring, and the runoff is collected by dams for summer allocation. However, if the precipitation falls as rain, or doesn’t occur at all, or if the snow evaporates rather than melts, the traditional irrigation model no longer works.

These days, even a very heavy snowpack will provide water for only two years. We no longer have a reserve of stored water; the availability of irrigation water is now on a year-to-year basis, depending on this winter’s snowpack. This is in stark contrast to the 80s and 90s, when Elephant Butte Lake was so full that it topped the spillway twice. One year there was so much water, they released some excess during the winter. I doubt if we’ll experience such a water glut again. In fact, before long I wouldn’t be surprised to see the snowpack fail completely some years, with a total lack of irrigation water for that year. And it might happen this winter – La Niña winters tend to be very dry. At any rate, most Grassroots Press readers aren’t dependent on irrigation water from the Rio Grande, which is not to say that they aren’t utterly dependent on nature somewhere down the line.

Fall is a remarkable time of year. The days shorten dramatically by mid-August, but temperatures don’t decrease as quickly, due to the enormous amount of heat stored within the top few feet of soil and rock. It’s this extra heat that makes autumn weather so pleasant. August is probably the most miserable month of the year, from my outdoorsy perspective, due to the heat, humidity, and mosquitoes. Yet October, a mere two months later, is one of the finest months of the year – crisp cool mornings followed by warm afternoons. And November is even better. La Niña winters tend to be sunny and dry – what I call “Chamber of Commerce weather,” so I would expect this winter to provide splendid opportunities for all manner of outdoor activities.

Autumn is our most colorful time of year. Peak color most years is early November. In the Las Cruces area, the most concentrated dose of fall colors can be found along Highway 185 as it parallels the Rio Grande between Radium Springs and Hatch. Golden cottonwoods, yellow willows, orange saltcedars, and flaming red sumac bushes combine to create a colorful spectacle.

The cotton fields are white unto harvest in November, looking like they’ve been struck by a natural fiber blizzard. But not for long, though, because farmers like to get that cotton harvested as quickly as possible, even running their cottonpickers at night if necessary. No sense tempting the weather, after all, because bad weather is always on the way sooner or later.

The chile fields, in their turn, ripen to bright shades of red. Until recent years, harvesting was a leisurely process lasting all winter, and the colorful fields provided a visual zap during a very brown time of the year. But research showed that both the quantity and quality of the chile was reduced by leaving it exposed to the elements like that, so now farmers like to get those peppers picked just as soon as they can.

As happens every year in late autumn, the waterfowl make like snowbirds and return to their winter haunts along the Rio Grande. Although they tend to concentrate in marshy areas like Bosque del Apache south of Socorro, plenty find their way into our area. Sometimes there’s a flock of a couple dozen snowy white egrets which fly in formation up and down the river about a foot above the water. (The air must be less turbulent there, making flying easier.) They make a beautiful sight as they fly, wingtip to wingtip, bodies reflecting in the water.

The sandhill cranes return from their northern summering grounds. Sometimes you can see them flying high above the river in multi-V patterns, necks outstretched, squonking back and forth to each other. Somehow the cranes epitomize autumn... slow but steady, and sure of its direction – winter is still to come, but spring is just around the corner.


Anonymous jacques conejo said...

Yeah... cool, very cool...

I really like the way you write Gordon. I can see all the stuff you describe.. the birds gliding just above the water - mmmm. And of course, your diligent record keeping and referencing is quite comprehensive and instructional.

I'm glad you're still at it!

9:27 PM  

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