The dust here covers everything. It permeates the clothes and covers your vehicle. By the end of the day, there is dust under your fingernails, in your hair, and behind your ears. When one drives down the road, trails of dust mark your path like wake behind a boat and the fine powder gently coats the plants at the sides of the road. Personally, I don’t mind the dust so much; it reminds me of bank robbers on the get-away or the Roadrunner when Wile E. Coyote shows up.
I grew up within an hour’s drive from Lake Erie. The Cuyahoga River chugs through the downtown of my city. It swirls around Standing Rock near the cemetery and down among the sandstone walls where Captain Brady made his
fateful leap while being pursued by Native Americans. As a boy, I watched tadpoles develop on the edges of the swamp behind my house and fished for catfish in Breakneck Creek before dinner.
I think that having grown up in the East, a part of me will always long for the lapping of ripples along the shore line and the cold morning breezes that whip across the water. When I close my eyes, I see and hear the blue-green of the many bodies I have come to know and love and smell the moisture laden in the air. At times, I feel like I don’t yet belong here in the Sage Steppe. Hours pass by in the truck and much of what I see is dry rocky earth sprinkled with sagebrush and juniper with the occasional muddy lakebed or mucky pond in a rancher’s pasture.
During the thirteenth year of drought, hopes have begun to dry up as this year predictions are the worst they have been in nearly twenty years. A drought of this magnitude is something I have never experienced as rain and snow pound us in North East Ohio year round. The concern for this area of the country has grown in me since I have arrived and the realities have become more apparent. I wonder, what will these people do if things continue on this course? Once upon a time, the Egyptians lived in a land lush with vegetation and agriculture. The seat of their society was surrounded by waves of grain and palaces containing elaborate gardens.
Recently, I was sent to survey for Greater Sage Grouse in Surprise Valley. As I drove up a winding dirt road, I checked my map for the large body of water to which I was heading. My instructions were that since the northern route around the lake would most likely be too wet and muddy to navigate with a truck, I should set up a spotting scope on the dyke on the eastern side of the reservoir and look across. Once I confirmed my location, I kicked myself for forgetting my fishing pole at the office.
As I crested the hill at 6:30 am, light from the sun had just begun to reclaim the land. Shadows hid behind the juniper and taller sagebrush as the stone plaque of Fee Reservoir came into view. It stood proudly among the brown earth like a tombstone. The words “Fee Reservoir Launch Facility Funded by State Department of Boating and Waterways” were etched in bold black letters on its face. “Aha!” I thought, “here we are!”
I crept forward along the dyke slowly settling into a good spot to set up like a cat on a blanket when the boat launch came into view. At first, I could not figure out what I was looking at. There was a cement ramp descending at least forty feet into nothing. It dawned on me, the water is too low. I grabbed my binoculars and took a closer look, the ramp ended in a drop-off that was met by more brown fluffy earth. I followed the contours of the land farther and farther out expecting the water to come into view any moment. Crossing a pile of rocks near the center of the depression, my eyes swept faster until the land began to climb up to the other shore. Nothing.
By this time, the light of day was upon the grave of Fee Reservoir. The massive body of water was dead. I was shocked. I could understand how the smaller ponds and shallow pools had run dry, especially those within the pastures and meadows, but this was a lake a mile wide by several miles long, and deep. Through my binoculars, I could just make out the trench carved by the trickling creek that had created the reservoir. This is when I understood how serious the situation had become.
I had overheard talk in the office of groups of farmers whose lively hoods had been ruined this season as the local governments had cut off their irrigation. Standing on the edge of this ghost reservoir, I wondered where the water to flush all the toilets in southern California was going to come from and how we could warrant such a use of fresh water. It seemed all wrong. We can wash our cars, take showers every day, and pee in fresh clean water without ever having to think about Fee Reservoir.
Back home, fracking for natural gas is promoted as a god send for “clean” energy and creating jobs. Thousands of gallons of clean water are polluted in the process including both ground water and surface water, not to mention the tons of waste-water generated in the lubrication process. My good ol’ state of Ohio has signed a deal to import waste water from other states while beginning massive fracking operations of its own without a care for the precious resource that we have: water.
We take for granted the beauty of turning on the faucet and filling our glasses with cold drinkable water. It is hard not to. It has always been there. We expect that it will be and that it should be. Why wouldn’t it be? There is water everywhere is there not? Back home you are in the heart of the Great Lakes. In fact, the Great Lakes Brewing Company isn’t too far from home if you ever want a tasty beer. But the reality is that things are changing, and fast.
Here is an interesting experiment. Go on GoogleEarth, look up Alturas, California and take a gander at all the bodies of water around. Scroll around; get a feel for the area. Check out Nevada, it’s only a couple hours to the east. Once you think to yourself, looks like quite a bit of water for being on the edge of a desert, switch from map view to satellite. Take a moment to switch it back and forth. Tell me you don’t notice a huge difference in what you see on the map and in reality and I will call you a liar. Things that should be nice lakes are brown. Big lakes are mere puddles now, if they exist at all.
As I concluded my survey at Fee Reservoir, I took a drive around the braiding of paths along the eastern shore. You know that sense of abandonment you get when you see a barn that’s no longer in use? It’s the same feeling you get when venture into a long closed factory or an old cellar that hasn’t seen a human since who knows when. It’s the same feeling I got while driving past campsites that have sat unused near locked restrooms and a dry pump marked “water not for human consumption.”