Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Facing up to an Imperiled Aquifer

published as commentary in the Post Register, November 27, 2016

I come from a long line of flood irrigators. My great grandfather acquired one of the first water rights out of the Blackfoot River in 1871. Now my husband, who is an artist with a shovel, carefully maneuvers our own 1904 right across our ranch using the power of gravity.

This spreading of river water (surface water) worked to raise the level of the aquifer beneath us right up until the 1950’s, when groundwater pumping began in earnest. This new method of irrigation was efficient and brought many more acres under cultivation than could have been reached by gravity alone. Approximately one million acres are now irrigated by the water-soaked basalt of the Snake River Aquifer. And some 300,000 of us draw our drinking water from the aquifer as well.

At nearly 11,000 square miles in area, it is one of the largest and most productive aquifers in the world. There’s no doubting the economic prosperity it has brought to Southeast Idaho. But we now face the real threat of aquifer declines lower than the benchmark levels of the early 1900’s.

The specter of climate change and the likelihood of receiving more of our annual precipitation as rain instead of snow, further complicates the picture. Snowpack acts as storage and ensures a long seasonal flow of water as temperatures warm throughout the summer.    

On our ranch, we have always believed that too many deep well irrigation pumps had a negative effect on the water table, so we welcomed the recent efforts of local groundwater pumpers to curtail use for this very reason. This voluntary 2015 effort is a great start to realizing that hydrology of surface and ground waters are inextricably linked.    

But the Idaho Department of Water Resources (IDWR) has gone a step further. Because the Snake River Aquifer is approaching critical status they have ordered the designation of an Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer Ground Water Management Area. I attended one of the town hall meetings conducted by IDWR this summer to take comments on the plan. Our groundwater pumping neighbors voiced their anger and their concerns. They’ve already agreed to voluntary cutbacks and see this effort as government overreach. They’re afraid they’ll be asked to give up more water in the future when, by agreeing to curtailments in the existing agreement, they were promised “safe harbor” from that threat.

Their argument is valid and I understand their fears. But from a gravity irrigator’s standpoint, who is at the mercy of river flows, I endorse the management area creation. I believe IDWR director Spackman when he says that the Ground Water Management Area gives us a chance to get ahead of aquifer declines and allows for proactive efforts on the wet years as well as the dry. The best thing we as irrigators can do is stay engaged and help with defining the terms of the agreement.

As Judith Schwartz, author of Water in Plain Sight, who looks at the water cycle from a soil management perspective says, “water connects us all.” Here in southeastern Idaho, we see water as our birthright. But change is upon us. And it’s not just an agricultural problem. Societies have always gone the way of their food producing fortunes. At mealtime we’re all agriculturalists. 

Springtime delivery of surface water, our lifeblood

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Soliloquy for Fall

November dawned still as stone today. The forecast says snow and single digits by Tuesday. The canals are quiet again and the long mornings mean an extra cup of coffee and some quiet conversation for me and Mark.   

We’re still finishing up fall chores. I cleaned the various ranch outbuildings – the warming room in the barn, the scale house and the pump house. The mouse droppings have been vacuumed and the windows washed.  

Mark is draining water troughs. He draws the water out with an irrigation siphon tube and/or garden hose. Some years he’s been caught off-guard and has to chop the whole thing out because it freezes solid. A “make work” task for sure.

He helped me dig the red spuds, and to further fill the larder, I picked up the meat we had processed at the local butcher shop. The Mickelson family was hard at work packaging ground beef when I arrived. How thankful we are that this family business is close by. While I was there a Hispanic mother and son picked up a cow’s head in a plastic bag. I don’t know how they prepare that, but am glad to know their culture helps us use the whole carcass. The value of diversity!

After 16 years in our home I finally got a circle drive! What was once a weedy eyesore that attracted ranch paraphernalia like a magnet, is now a graceful, graveled loop. Men with large tractors don’t realize how easy it is to make a wife happy.

We moved the cattle down to the first stair-step towards home. It was a clear, warm day, and with the calves off, the "drys" were quiet and agreeable and moved off the dogs in a fluid motion. We dumped the herd in the Brush Creek field and took them to water before coaxing them up the mountain to where Mark had delivered salt and lick tub treats. This supplement will help them process dry mature grasses, plus reward them for making the climb. They’re lazy and would prefer staying down on the creek.   

2016 has been a tumultuous year across our planet, and with all the strife, I’m feeling very grateful for our bulging freezer, a generous wood pile, and the fact that we go to bed each night without fear of our own countrymen. 

Mark handed me a poem this morning by Bernard J. Patrick, A Thanksgiving Soliloquy, and suggested that with all I could write about, perhaps I could end with this: . . . for every pennyweight of bad, I have found a ton of good. . . good in Nature, in People, in the World. And I’m thankful I belong. 

the way home

the monochromatic beauty of quakies in November

someone's long ago great idea

Kate and me on top of the world

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The Original Hydrologist

It keeps raining! There’s a pond at ranch headquarters just like in March when the weather breaks for spring. For a cowboy it’s heaven on earth. Only, what happens if it keeps being this wet and gets really cold? It’s a scary thought when we’ve got cattle grazing at 6,000 feet.

We’ve got beaver trouble. We love them, but their dam is flooding a ditch and creating a large bog across a pasture in the mountains. Mark and Seth waded into the creek and pulled out great quantities of sticks and succeeded in getting the water level dropped. But of course the beaver had the dam rebuilt when we went back. The sound of escaping water is their cue to get to work.  

Mark called Seth to tell him about it. They joked about the big rodent throwing a bugle to his lips and sounding a call to arms to repair the destruction. Mark made a beeping noise, like heavy equipment in reverse. And we laughed, but Mark wasn’t so jocular when we yanked out the sticks on our next trip.

I was convinced there had to be a better way so went researching for alternatives. I found that a pipe at the bottom of the pond could be used to keep the water level at a certain height. Sounds like it might work.  

Beavers are called a keystone species, like the wedge shaped block at the highest point of an arch, they are the one resident of many within an ecosystem, that if removed would cause the whole thing to implode. Their ponds support a myriad of life forms in the wetlands they create and increase the water table throughout the whole watershed.

Their ponds are firstly for predator protection. A beaver is slow and vulnerable on land but can hide quickly in a deep pond. Besides that, floating timbers is easier than dragging them across land. Just like lumberjacks of old who used rivers to transport logs, beavers are clever that way. The pond also serves as cold storage for tree limbs that provide food for the beaver family during winter. They are vegetarians and feed on leaves and the cambium layer of limbs as a mainstay.   

Beavers can spend up to 15 minutes underwater. They mate for life, and the young, the kits, stay with their parents for two years before venturing off to find new territory. Their lodges have secret watery entrances, with the interior living areas warm and protected from predators through the long kit-raising period.

Beaver, nearly trapped to extinction during the fur-trapping heyday in the 1700’s, have made a comeback, but are coming into more and more conflict with human enterprise. In this age of climate change, declining aquifer levels, population growth and fights over water, hydrology - even and especially here in richly irrigated southeastern Idaho - has come to the forefront. It behooves us to reacquaint ourselves with the original hydro-engineers and find ways to enlist their help.

battle lines are drawn!

still lovely by any measure

Friday, October 28, 2016

An English Experience

In the month of October, Mark had the opportunity to close a circle that stretched across the Atlantic. Twenty-four years ago when I was pregnant with Anna, Mark spent six weeks in England on a Rotary Exchange. He stayed with host families throughout his visit and one home in particular stood out. This family included a three year old girl, Felicity, who asked her mother on the way home from picking up Mark, “do you think he would like to play faum with me?” Of course Mark would. A little set of corrals with animals and a barn reminded him of home.  

Skip to 2016, enter Facebook. Mark asked Anna to research the English family name and sure enough, there was the little girl all grown up. And she liked horses! Mark issued an invitation to visit the ranch, and Felicity, with her fiancĂ© Ash in tow, arrived for a visit.  

We were in the middle of weaning calves and put them on horses straightaway. Ash rode Sly, our veteran, and Felicity (Fliss) rode Birdie. Sly was perfect for Ash, who had only been taking riding lessons for a few weeks. Birdie, lively and sensitive in nature was a good fit for Fliss and more like the English version she was used to.

One day we gathered our mountain field. I sent Ash to the top of a peak where he could see the other side of the property. His job was to radio down to Fliss and me, riding the creek below him, about cattle hiding out in the high mountain draws above us. The picture of his silhouette against the skyline made us realize how far from England they really were.

Later that same day, Fliss decided she didn’t like cows after all when the few she was following split and each went a different direction. She would put one in the gate to the corral, then go back for another one, only to have the one she had just put in come back out again!

They rented a camp trailer and toured Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks in an early snowstorm. They marveled at the Tetons and got the all-important photos of bison, elk, and even a foraging bear (the same one that Fliss’s Mom had warned her about!) We took them to Craters of the Moon and had supper at Pickles in Arco. They soaked at Lava Hot Springs, took part in family parties and toured the rugged Snake River Canyon at Twin Falls.   

I know they learned a lot . . . but then, so did we. We talked about Brexit (they voted for it) and the fear mongering that went on before the vote. We talked about vanishing farm ground in England and the consequences of immigrant influx to their country. We talked about sheep farms in Wales where Ash grew up, London congestion, the upsides and downsides of universal health care, and what it’s like as young people, working hard and making their way in the UK.

We had the rare opportunity to see our world through their eyes. When riding in the mountains, Fliss remarked about the “awful brush.” What? You mean sagebrush? Why, sagebrush is Idaho herself! I told her I didn’t know anything else. And riding horses to us means walking behind a cow – at a cow’s pace – in stark contrast to their version, cantering across the English countryside jumping over hedges! Their version sounds like loads of fun (no wonder they wear helmets) . . . but we have work to do after all.  

Fliss left her recipe of “toad in the hole” on the fridge before she left. I made it last night and it was almost as good as when she made it for us. There are several versions of it on the internet. If you try it, make sure and bake it until the Yorkshire pudding is brown and crispy.

Thanks for visiting our world you two! It was, as the British say, “lovely.”

full circle

Pinning Bedfordshire on the map at the Twin Falls Visitor Center

                                                                  at ease in a western saddle                                                     photo by Anita

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Monarch Story

published as commentary in the Post Register, October 20, 2016

My son found a late season monarch caterpillar on one of the few remaining green milkweeds in late September.    

Because a cold snap was imminent, we brought the caterpillar in the house along with a few leaves to put in a jar like we used to do when Seth was a boy. Within a couple of days a cocoon appeared. We knew it was going to be too cold and wet for the butterfly to survive in Idaho so we sent it with Seth as a traveling companion on his move to Chico, California. He knew that monarchs had the ability to re-calibrate a change of location and Chico isn’t far from traditional over-wintering sites along the California Coast.

Generations of kids have been introduced to the wonder of nature by these once ubiquitous beauties. It’s not only the metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly that fascinates us, but the migration mystery as well. The annual route, up to 6,000 miles round trip, requires about four generations, with the spring and summer insects living only 2- 6 weeks as they work their way north from Mexico or California to Canada and then back south in late summer. Our butterfly will be the lucky generation, living up to 8 months, and delaying mating until after its wintertime rest.

Sadly, monarch numbers have plunged over the last twenty years by as much as 74% in 2015. Insecticide and herbicide use is undoubtedly part of the problem. Milkweeds, the only plant the monarch caterpillar can eat, is in serious decline. Humans have gotten very good at killing living things, including many species we never intended to.   

Milkweeds are abundant on our ranch. They love the ditchbanks, and I even let them crowd the edge of our lawn, using the mower to squelch their valiant attempts to invade my landscaping. I’m okay with ragged edges in my spot of earth. You might call it unkempt; I call it biodiversity - different plants with various characteristics to support all the creatures that live on the ranch, with the cows, the herding dogs, the horses and our human family.

British East/West philosopher, Alan Watts, said it: “Life is wiggly.” And we’d all be better off acknowledging that fact. Farmers mow, spray, disc and otherwise manicure the edges of their farms. Homeowners prune, pull, edge, trim, eliminate the undesirables and promote the ornamental. I appreciate the ordered beauty as much as anyone, but nature loves complexity which is usually messy. 

How many kids these days bring in a caterpillar to watch it turn into a butterfly? Do kids play outside anymore? And if they do, are there wild spaces where milkweeds grow and crawling, creeping, insects live?

Luckily, individuals and groups across our continent are working together to create and protect habitat. Over-wintering sites are receiving tourism income rather than having to cut down forests that harbor butterflies. We landowners can now receive government help to plant “pollinator plots.” Backyard gardeners are planting milkweed and nectar producing plants. Even Monsanto, blamed for promoting glyphosate herbicide use in the agricultural industry, effective at eliminating milkweed from crops, is contributing over $3.5 million over three years in matching monies for research and education to restore and enhance monarch habitat across North America.

Good news for this iconic, fleeting and fragile resident of our natural world.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Weaning Day

The mountains are glorious this fall. The quaking aspens have almost lost their color, but the willows along the creek and poplars at the old homesteads are in full splendor. And to make it perfect, the soil is thoroughly soaked. It's a very full-up feeling to work with the cattle on days like these. The herd does fine on cured-off grasses, but the new green leaves are a bonus.

The moisture is a boon to wildlife as well. Green sprouts mean protein and energy for soon-to-be wintering birds, small mammals and large game. And deep soil moisture, hopefully followed by good snowpack, bodes well for a bountiful growing season next year.

We pulled the calves off the cows between storms. The day didn’t exactly go like clockwork. When we arrived at our mountain weaning corrals, we found that the cattle had escaped their fenced pasture overnight. We had to re-gather the whole herd and stuff them back into the pasture through the muddy path they had made while escaping. The fence had to be repaired before we could begin separating. So as we worked through the herd, cows to the left, calves to the right, the truckers who had come some distance to help us, were waiting in line. I was worried that we were ruining their whole day and “will they come back next year if we made them wait so long this year?”

I needn’t have worried. What a nice bunch of guys they were. They all pitched in and helped us work the calves up the alley and into the trucks. Turns out Mark rodeoed in college with one of them. His son, Dalton, was my helper and told me all about the Texas ranch he is determined to own one day. His grandpa directed traffic and secured the latch as the last gate went down. Their three generations worked with our three generations to finish the job.

Dalton said that cattle were “in his blood.” And so it is with us I suppose.

The calves came down to the home ranch corrals for three days to complete the weaning process and then we turned them out to graze. Despite our good care, we’re getting sickness in the calves, which means riding through them daily and doctoring those that need it. The rain, though welcome, came with temperature extremes that, on top of weaning stress, may have precipitated the sickness.

When I told Great Grandma Bonny about our travails, she sang to me: “Mamas . . . don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys!”  I laughed and assured her that if we weren’t cowboys we’d perhaps be doing something equally as stressful. We know that owning stock means you'll lose a few now and then. We try to take what comes with equanimity and remember the oft-repeated phrase that stockmen live by: “As long as we keep it in the barnyard, we’ll be okay.” 

all photos by Anita 


the end of a long day

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

A Love Letter

It’s supposed to happen in the fall – a soaking rain. And it came! And after a dry summer, we ranchers breathe a collective sigh. There is green under the golden grasses and no dust for our fall work.

Mark and I have a list of autumn chores we’re trying to work through. I think all country dwellers would agree with me, if September and October would offer a “do over” we’d all rejoice! So much to do and here it is already the last week of September.

One of my autumn tasks is re-typing some essays my sisters and I found during our annual retreat. We got together right here in Idaho to attend our nephew’s wedding, and when the festivities were over we turned to another task we’d been thinking about for some time.    

We finally went through the last of my grandma’s personal belongings. They had been caught in a time warp in our ancestral home for forty years. Yes, we found costume jewelry to distribute to the granddaughters and stacks of magazines to discard even though my uncle, now deceased, had written “don’t burn ever!” on the covers.  The letters to Grandma written by four grandsons serving in Vietnam were wonderful. But the most precious find was a stack of personal essays. Grandma was a poet and wrote a weekly column for the paper. But this writing was a different genre and work we had never seen before.  

One special piece is one she wrote about my grandfather, Robert. He was only 63 when he died of asthma, so none of us knew him. We knew the two of them had a good marriage, but never knew any details of their life together. So when I stumbled upon this manuscript, typed on yellowed paper with her old manual typewriter, I knew I had found a gem.  

 “Oh! You guys listen to this!” I said, as we sat around on the porch of the 1887 home. The essay was entitled, simply, “Bob Reid.”

“Always I shall see him framed in the door as he greeted some unexpected guests that had come while he was in the fields. His hat pushed back and his sweaty hair looped down on his low, broad forehead. Perhaps he hadn’t taken off his rubber boots and his overalls were carefully tucked into them. His tall angular form filled the doorway even as his smile filled the room.”

“As he talked, his face became a study of expression. His left eyebrow had a way of running up in a point, and every wrinkle around his eyes and mouth had an upward curve that proclaimed kindness, contentment, optimism. The world was just the way he liked it. His children were all perfect in his sight, his wife the only woman in the world.”

At this all my sisters exclaimed at once, “awwwwwww!” What a treasure.

Most of us have some of our heritage tucked away from our ancestors. A gun, a saddle, an antique bedstead or a handmade quilt, but for me, this would-be writer, I could not be more thrilled than to find the painstakingly crafted stories from my dad’s mom, a woman very different from me. She was gregarious and I am shy. She had many friends from all over the U.S. My friends are my sisters! Different, yet so alike. She needed to write and so do I. 

" Grandy"  heading to flood irrigate

my sis's