By Pepper Trail Writers on the Range
Ah, what a beautiful day! The air has that magical quality it sometimes gets in spring, a caressing softness on the skin. The buds on the plum trees are swelling, and the robins have ascended to the tops of the trees, where they’re singing with abandon.
But… it is February. Today’s high temperature was 72 degrees, almost 20 degrees higher than normal and a new record.
At this time of year, the mountains surrounding my southern Oregon valley should be deep in snow. The high-country lakes should be full, but frozen. The sky should be gray and, ideally, snowing.
Winter weather is the price we pay—gladly—for the mountain wildflowers; the lakes full of trout; the water that irrigates our farms, orchards and gardens through the long hot summer; and for the lush, green forests that are not on fire.
But as the great naturalist Aldo Leopold remarked, “To be an ecologist is to live in a world of wounds.” These days, the same could be said for meteorologists, or for any of us trying to find uncomplicated pleasure in the beauty of a spring day in mid-winter.
For this too-warm day reveals that we are in another drought year. Almost all the precipitation in my region of southern Oregon falls from October through March, and we need as much of that as possible to be in the form of snow. Snow that piles up deep in the mountain forests and slowly melts through spring and early summer, soaking into the soil and filling the streams.
That hasn’t happened this year, or last year, or the year before that. Since Jan. 1, we have received just 0.61 inches of rain, 2.11 inches less than normal. For the “water year” that started Oct. 1, we are at 8.54 inches, most of which came in a near-blizzard in late December. That storm gave us a nice white Christmas and hope for a wet winter at last—but since then, nothing. Normal for this time of year would be about 12 inches. And the long-term forecast doesn’t look good.
The snow has melted except at the highest elevations, and there is no precipitation in the extended forecast. According to the federal Drought Monitor map, we are on the border between Severe Drought and Extreme Drought. Just on the other side of the Cascades to the east, there is a huge dark blob of Exceptional Drought, the highest category. These catastrophic drought conditions are unfortunately shared by Nevada, Utah, Montana, Colorado and New Mexico.
Should we be surprised when scientists tell us the West is the driest it’s been in more than a thousand years?
On the Oregon-California border, the drought forced a complete shutdown of water deliveries to farmers in the Klamath Basin this year. The basin’s great national wildlife refuges—used by 80 percent of the migrating ducks, geese, and swans on the Pacific Flyway—are almost completely dry, their lakes nothing but expanses of cracked mud.
The Klamath River, normally fed by mountain snowpack, is running low, and there are great fears of massive die-offs in salmon returning to spawn this summer.
Closer to home, the mountain lakes that feed our streams and supply our irrigation districts are all at less than 10 percent full, just sad little puddles.
Looming over all this bad news is perhaps the biggest fear of all: Fire. Without snowpack to keep the mountain forest hydrated into the summer, the risk of wildfire is extreme. My town is nestled against conifer forests that come within a few hundred yards of the city limits. Our recent summers have been plagued by weeks of eye-burning smoke, and in 2020 a wind-driven fire devastated the Oregon towns of Talent and Phoenix, even though they’re surrounded by orchards.
Back in the moment, I sit on my deck, sip my tea, and enjoy this glorious day. Each year, I know, gives us just a few days like this, and when they come—whenever they come—they must be savored with gratitude. Yet this beautiful day carries the knowledge of what it may cost us in the months to come.
So, to whoever this prayer could be addressed, thank you for this day. Now, please, how about a few weeks of gray skies and wet snow?
Pepper Trail is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He is an ecologist in Oregon.