Flood to Drought: One Extreme to Another

The rain came to our house last night, a minor setback for the drought to end all droughts. While this one isn’t over yet, heavy rain and wind, followed by steady, ground-soaking precipitation the likes of which we’ve not seen in months, restored hope that better weather lies ahead, as my husband optimistically observed.

But an animated map of dry weather conditions across the U.S. shows a swath of deep burnt orange dipping across northeastern Oklahoma, signifying “exceptional drought” according to the map’s legend. Most of western Oklahoma is as bad or worse, and the governor’s decision to issue a statewide burn ban has finally given the two of us common ground upon which to agree.

The order came not a moment too soon: for weeks, the dry grass in our rural Cherokee County yard appears to have simply dissolved and settled into the cracked earth intended to sustain it. Trees droop and drought-resistant ground cover planted decades ago is brown and locust-eaten. The vegetable garden was pulled up by the roots weeks ago. Ornamentals near the house are kept alive with occasional watering, but fold their leaves to conserve life forces against mid-day heat. August is usually too hot to mow, and the yard typically grows so wild the cat gets lost in the weeds. This year, the lawn tractor is garaged till further notice.

 This morning our foliage reaches to the sky in a celebration of temporary relief, but newscasts continue to show images of cracked ponds and decimated corn throughout the Midwest. Farmers are pulling up corn to feed cattle or selling livestock for which they have no feed. Minutes before the storm passed over our house last night, CBS Evening News aired a segment showing levels at Lake Tenkiller, a few miles from here, seven feet below normal. In a worst case scenario, weather forecasters say real relief may not come until spring.

And if that isn’t enough to earn worst drought status since the Dust Bowl, consider this: according to CNN, the drought in Louisiana has lowered the Mississippi River to a level that allows saline water from the Gulf of Mexico to wash upriver. Officials 90 miles from the mouth of the river are advising citizens to expect salt in their drinking water. Not a health hazard, but certainly a predictor of where this drought is taking us. With the river level lower than normal, barges are moving more slowly and carrying less cargo, which means it costs more to transport goods. As the saying goes, that’s where they get you: our wallets will feel the pinch as transportation costs rise. Fox News reports one barge carries the equivalent of 70 semi-trucks on the highway, based on shipping industry estimates. Adjustments to how much a barge can carry to accommodate low water levels will ripple across the economy like skipped rocks on a stagnant pond.

So far, water levels on the Mississippi have not affected barges that travel the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System in Oklahoma. According to KOTV News, Mississippi craft have shifted to a 9-foot draft (that’s the vertical distance between the barge’s waterline and its keel). Those passing through the Port of Catoosa maintain an 8.5 foot draft. While this doesn't make the drought any less severe, we can take comfort in river traffic continuing as usual, right?

Earlier this summer, I picked up a copy of “Rising Tide,” the story of the 1927 Mississippi River flood that revolutionized America's approach to utilizing her major waterway. The book enjoyed a surge of popularity following the historic Mississippi River flood of 2011. Author-historian John M. Barry traces the changes that led to channels that guide the river’s traffic, and the modifications that allow commerce to continue flowing in dire times like these.

In 2011, as we watched homes and agricultural lands disappear beneath Old Man River, history confirmed that eventually the water would recede and we'd move forward to deal with the damage. Here in northeast Oklahoma, we faced a similar scenario on a smaller scale: floodwaters covered the basin of the scenic Illinois River. Images of Highway 10 slipping underwater, homes covered to their rooftops, water lapping the wooden slats of historic Combs Bridge contrast today with exposed gravel bars in mid-river that haven’t seen the light of day in decades and places along the highway where the river narrows to the point that it simply disappears. But this we know: one extreme gives way to another. Soon enough, we'll be mowing yards and heading for higher ground.


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