Friday, May 1, 2009

Water, water everywhere...nor any drop

We all remember the verse, although we might not recall the source. "Water, water, everywhere, and all the boards did shrink; water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink." Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote those words in 1797 in his groundbreaking poem, Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Appropriately for our subject, it was the tale of a ship driven off course by a storm, and a perilous trip home from the Antarctic. Coleridge's character of the Mariner makes a fatal error, killing the albatross, the bird which had pointed the way to safety for his crew. As punishment, or perhaps as a symbol of his guilt, he takes the body of the dead bird to wear around his neck, from which action we derive the imagery of an albatross representing a burden carried by some unfortunate individual.

In this time, in this place, we must collectively wear the albatross around our necks, the burden of knowledge that we have fouled our earth, that we have steered ourselves into our own sea of troubles, and that we have no clear path for a way "home." For some of us, this will take the form of roiling seas, of tropics warmed to produce larger and more intense hurricanes. For others, there will be freakish storms, record floods, destructive hail. For those in my part of Texas, however, we already know the travails we face as a result of climate change--we face a state of permanent perpetual drought.

Yes, the seas may rise along coastlines--the world's most prominent climatologists say at least a meter by 2100--but deep inside the great state of Texas, paralleling in some places, the I-35 divide, the drought that farmers and ranchers have been at a loss to understand--or fight--is taking permanent hold. Drive along any highway to Laredo or any part of the lower Rio Grande valley, and you'll see the wide swaths of burnt landscape extending far back into residential areas. Not new, you might say--drivers start those brushfires with their bad habits of extinguishing cigarettes outside their windows. But in the past, that phenomenon of burnt brown grass didn't achieve maximum crunchiness until July, or even August. I was seeing these fires in March, traditional wildflower season for our state's highways. In many areas, they've threatened cattle, homes, and lives--and in the Bastrop area, just south of Austin, they've led a large contingent of ranchers to decide that their multi-generational properties will not live on in their family names; they're selling out to developers--taking cattle to market and giving up.

"We can't afford to feed 'em anymore," a rancher told me on one of my trips to South Texas as he packed too many head of Brangus cattle into an ancient trailer. Unable to grow hay on his own property, he could no longer afford the cost of importing it from several counties away. And it isn't just growing hay that has become such a problem for our state's farmers and ranchers. Citrus growers expressed the frustration that they no longer knew when to plant, because the climate no longer gave them the clues they'd come to anticipate over the decades. When they did plant, they found themselves scrambing to irrigate fields well past the point where they would be expecting rain in a normal growing season. Even worse--when the rain came, it came in torrents, ripping crops out of the ground, running off so quickly across hardened, shrunken soil, that it often did more damage than the drought itself had done. "I'm not sure we'll have a cotton crop this year," one farmer in the Coastal Bend offered in a grave tone.

Those who deny climate change offer up simplistic and often syllogistic explanations for why it can't be happening. If we say it's too dry, they'll point out some recent catastrophic flood. If we cite as an example, warming temperatures in a particular region, they'll find one where it was thirty degrees in July. What they don't understand is that these are all expected manifestations of climate change, which takes the form of damaging rains in some areas at some times, and causes drastic drought in others. Whether it was a Houston deluge filling up the freeways like they were stoppered bathtubs, or a record high temperature further scorching the median of highway 35 headed to Laredo, it's all the same thing--the results of man-made climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

My hometown of San Antonio has done an admirable job of cutting back on water use, proving many predictions made in the 1950's wrong. Not only have we not run out of water, but now, as the nation's seventh-largest city, we have kept our water consumption far below anticipated levels and consistently shown that we can use less and less water on a per capita basis. But San Antonio is growing, blessed with an economy that defies the nation's recession and an improving image for hi-tech and other state-of-the-art industries. If current computer models which point to increased aridity in this region hold, no amount of conserving water will be enough. No simple answers will aide in an increasingly complex and dire situation. There is only one answer--for the storms of Houston as well as the drought of San Antonio--we must cut carbon emissions in order to mitigate the effects of man-made climate change.

The Ancient Mariner was forced to wander the earth for the remainder of his days, to tell his story to all those he encountered, as a warning and a message to all. Let us hope, for the sake of the next generation, that we can solve our climate problems so that our albatross falls from our necks, and so that we can be at peace with the legacy we have left for our children and grandchildren to come.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this... I've been enjoying your posts on the CCP out of Corpus Christi. Rave On! Alan Olson, Mustang Island


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