The Rains Finally Returned

A sight for sore eyes: thunderstorms on the horizon

Sometime after midnight on Friday, October 23rd, a sudden wave of heavy rain surged over the roof and continued in a slow and steady rate throughout all the next day.  It was as though a switch had been thrown somewhere in the Universe that instantly released us from the prison of an endless summer season. Since then, showers have occurred every week, and it seems possible to hope that the long-promised rainy pattern of El Niño might have actually arrived.

Loyal Valley had not seen rain since the third week of June, adding up to more than 100 hot, dry days without rain. The profit and loss statement of an unusually cool and wet spring balanced out to a disappointing zero by October. The rains came too late for grasses and other plants to set seed.  Even hardy, unwelcome weeds like fall gum weed and broom weed were absent.  My friend Martha Richardson in Junction urged me to map (www.learner.org/jnorth/) the arrival of the migrating monarchs in mid-September, but I dreaded even trying to look for them. Typical forage plants like frost weed, cow pen daisy, and poverty weed were withered and flowerless when time came for the migrants to pass through.  In past years, butterflies of all kinds could be found roosting by the hundreds in the pecans and elms along our creek, but this fall the only thing to observe was the dry rustle of brittle leaves. The abrupt end to moisture resulted are few acorns and persimmons and berries for other creatures to eat as well.

This pattern of extreme flooding followed by extended, brutally dry spells is exactly what the weather models of the effects of global warming describe.  We can all engage in magical thinking and linguistic contortions, but to me it’s hard to deny the fact that we are living climate change in real time.  Now we must face the challenge of how best to prepare ourselves and the land for this daunting new paradigm.

I mentioned in a previous blog that the words recovery and resiliency now frame most discussions of ecological restoration and sustainability.  Whether a landowner is a cattle producer, a farmer, or a wildlife habitat steward, the fundamental question of how best to help the land absorb and store rainwater in order to withstand prolonged dry spells is at the heart of all land use practices.   Recently I attended a series of workshops entitled “Soil for Water”. This series of seminars shared. These workshops were free (with lunch!) and led by impressive teachers who were eager to share on specific strategies for landowners on how best to manage and improve their land against the context of our changing climate patterns. More information can be found on their website: www.soilforwater.org .  (NOTE:  Just learned about another free workshop with a similar content is being offered in Boerne the first weekend in December. Go to www.quiviracoalition.org for information and registration.)

Although the program was design principally with cattle producers in mind, many of the principles and methods serve all kinds of landowners across a diversity of landscapes. I found the following to be most interesting:

  • A review of the underlying principles of ecosystem processes: the energy cycle, the water cycle, and the mineral cycle.  These series of systems have a functional relationship with one another.  For instance, it was explained that reducing bare ground and managing land to encourage deep-rooted grasses and wooded cover, “isolated rain events” can be enhanced that can lead to more frequent, specifically local intermittent showers apart from the larger systems we rely on to bring us rain.  A healthy, self-regenerating diverse groundcover is the key to absorption and storage of rainwater that is less likely to rapidly run off in flash floods. Instead, rain it is captured in the ground and then slowly released through springs, seeps, and a higher water table that result in longer duration of soil moisture regimes and flow in waterways.
  • Techniques for “reading the land” which included straightforward analysis of the vegetation cover.  Of course, knowledge of range plant species is helpful, but the beginner should not be daunted.  Some of the categories we looked for included % of bare ground vs covered area and plant litter, old plants vs new seedlings, woody vs grass and forbs, and the overall conditions and health of the plants. Understanding conditions on the land help us make decisions about our land practices before they reach a point where more expensive interventions may be needed.  In these workshops, grazing as a management tool was emphasized, but learning how to pay attention in this way can also help the landowner who is trying to understand when to sow seed, or how much brush to clear, and what the effects of these activities may have on the future productivity of the land.
  • Studies from range scientists that suggest that full recovery to pre-drought conditions in terms of soil moisture requires two back to back years of normal rainfall, and that on average that sequence happens every 8 years. In the six years we have had our property, “normal” years haven’t lined up like that, but having more information always leads to more realistic expectation of outcomes.
  • A review of the “Soil Food Web”.  We learned that 90% of the soil function (meaning it’s fertility, structure, and capacity to hold water and sustain plants) is due to soil microbes.  Management practices that understand the web and contribute to a steady, incremental program of enhancing soil biology can result in more resiliency.
  • Focusing on effective rainfall instead of monthly or annual rainfall amounts.  Effective rainfall soaks in and evaporation is minimized, thus utilizing rainfall more efficiently.  Land is managed so that the surface is not capped or crusted over. Instead, it slows the flow of water, which allows more to soak in before running off.

In the first rainstorm that broke the dry spell,  we had very little run off, despite receiving 4.6 “ of rain.  Range scientists report that soil levels in September had dried out back to 2011 levels. Although the grasses were dry and laying flat on the ground, they still provided some cushion from the pounding effects of heavy rainfall.  Five days later, bluebonnets and other seed was already germinating.  This powerful signal of Nature’s deep capacity for renewal and continued life never ceases to amaze and inspire me.  I tell myself that the disappointments of a failed season of planting grasses and an autumn where existing grasses fail to set seed due to drought gives me an opportunity to observe what form recovery takes under widely varying conditions. I decided to use the monitoring techniques and other methods learned at the workshop to guide next year’s projects:

  • To use the same seed mix that germinated but burned up this spring in this winter’s burn pile sites, and to use the techniques taught in the workshop to monitor the areas sown last year to see if any residual seed will still germinate, or if it will become colonized by nearby plants.
  • To be more intentional in establishing photo points to record changes certain activities set in motion.
  • To explore the long-term possibility of “borrowing” my neighbor’s cattle for flash grazing. 

If I keep paying attention, I may find a way to take advantage of the favorable cycles, and view the extremes with more equanimity and patience.  Meanwhile, I will savor the intoxicating aroma of moist soil and fresh foliage after a rainfall – something that is increasingly rare and precious.

posted on 11/8/2015