Oh, what a beautiful day! The air has that magical quality it sometimes has in spring, a caressing softness on the skin. The buds of the plum trees swell, and the robins have climbed to the tops of the trees, where they sing with abandon.
But… it’s February. Today’s maximum temperature was 72°, almost 20° above normal and a new record.
At this time of year, the mountains surrounding my southern Oregon valley should be deep in snow. 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 mountain wildflowers; lakes full of trout; the water that irrigates our farms, orchards and gardens during the long hot summers; and for 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”. The same could be said for weather forecasters these days, or any of us trying to find simple pleasure in the beauty of a mid-winter spring day.
Because this too hot day reveals that we are in another year of drought. Almost all of the precipitation in my area of southern Oregon falls from October through March, and we need as much of it as possible in the form of snow. Snow that accumulates deep in mountain forests and slowly melts in spring and early summer, seeping into the ground and filling streams.
It didn’t happen this year, or last year, or the year before. Since January 1, we have received only 0.61 inches of rain, which is 2.11 inches less than normal. For the “year of water” which began October 1, we are at 8.54 inches, most of which came in a near blizzard in late December. This storm gave us a beautiful white Christmas and the hope of a finally wet winter, but since then, nothing. Normal for this time of year would be around 12 inches. And the long-term predictions don’t look good.
The snow has melted except at the highest elevations and there is no precipitation in the long range forecast. According to the federal Drought Monitor map, we are on the border between Severe Drought and Extreme Drought. Just across the Cascades to the east is a huge dark patch 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 that the West is the driest in over a thousand years?
On the Oregon-California border, drought this year forced a complete halt to water deliveries to farmers in the Klamath Basin. The basin’s major National Wildlife Refuges – used by 80% of the ducks, geese and swans migrating on the Pacific Flyway – are almost completely dried up, their lakes just stretches of cracked mud.
The Klamath River, normally fed by mountain snow, is running out and there are fears of mass salmon mortalities returning to spawn this summer.
Closer to home, the mountain lakes that feed our streams and feed our irrigation schemes are all less than 10% full, just sad little puddles.
Above all this bad news looms perhaps the greatest fear of all: fire. Without snow accumulation to keep the mountain forest hydrated in the summer, the risk of wildfires is extreme. My city is nestled against coniferous forests that are a few hundred meters from the city limits. Our recent summers have been plagued by weeks of eye-searing smoke, and in 2020 a wind-driven fire devastated the towns of Talent and Phoenix in Oregon, even though they are surrounded by orchards.
Back in the moment, I sit on my terrace, sip my tea and enjoy this glorious day. Every year, I know, gives us just a few days like this, and when they come – when they come – they are to be savored with gratitude. Yet this beautiful day brings the knowledge of what it risks costing us in the months to come.
So, to whomever this prayer may 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 stimulating lively conversation about the West. He’s an environmentalist in Oregon.