Press "Enter" to skip to content

Water in the driest of years

Column by Hal Walter

Drought – January 2003 – Colorado Central Magazine

IT’S A NEVER-CEASING SOURCE of amazement for me when I turn on the faucet and somewhere from about 150 feet underground, comes water.

In fact, it is so much an amazement, that a major home-improvement project I tackled one particularly icy weekend this fall was the installation — at great plumbing hassle — of a new sink and fixtures that cost almost exactly what I will earn from writing this column in all of 2002.

In addition to making me think about why I would buy such an expensive sink and fixtures (or write so cheaply), this has also increased my wonder about where the water is coming from, much in the same way I often wonder where the words come from. Whenever I go to get a drink of water — eight glasses a day is the minimum for good health — I now think of Freud since the new farmhouse-style fixtures are labeled in French, and the cold is homonymically “froid.”

Thinking back over 2002, which was without a doubt the driest year I’ve witnessed in my life, several images stand out like a parched cholla cactus in the middle of what Wallace Stegner called the “Great American Desert.”

Last winter extreme cold and lack of snow left us quite literally “freeze-dried” here in the Wet Mountains. The usual spring blizzard never materialized, and the grass, or what was left of it, stayed brown as we rushed headlong into wildfire season. In my nearby geography there was a fire which narrowly missed a friend’s ranch near Antelope Valley, southeast of Westcliffe. Then, a few weeks later, I watched from my own house as the marching mushroom cloud of the Iron Mountain blaze swept the northwest horizon until it disappeared behind a ridge to my northeast.

The smoke of other fires thickened the air last summer as the traditional monsoon season was conspicuous in its absence. The pastures turned to sand. The patch of sod in front of my house became a patch of dirt held in place only by dead roots. Finally, after some late thundershowers and early light snows in September and October, we witnessed the greenest weeks of 2002 in late October. Small springs that had gone dry trickled back to life, and I thought that perhaps we were in for a heavy, early snowfall.

This will be my 12th winter here at the head of Boneyard Park in the Wet Mountains. The old timers say the place was so named because it was littered with the bones of many bison when first discovered. It is thought that perhaps the bison were trapped here by an extremely heavy, early snowfall. Living here, today, I feel a bit like a trapped bison myself because so many of my friends and acquaintances have fled back to the Front Strange in recent months, back to the safety of nearby groceries, pubs, strip malls and city water supplies. One friend told me that he was the last of the full-timers to leave his small subdivision, now a true ghost town of ridgetop trophy homes.

Now water experts are saying that despite good early snowfalls, even a normal snowpack will still mean severe water restrictions in the cities this summer. And weather experts are predicting a dry mid-Winter.

It is a widely held belief that we need a heavy snowpack in order to have water in the summer. Of course this is true for those who live on city water systems, most of which are fueled directly by snowmelt runoff, and for those who have wells on the valley floors below the mountain ranges. But I’m not so certain it has all that much bearing for those of us who have water wells here in the Wet Mountains. In fact, the immediate history of the last near-dozen years would seem to indicate otherwise. For if this theory were true, my well certainly would have gone dry by now.

The big snow years stand out in my mind because, frankly, they have been so few and far between. The only common pattern seems to be that a fairly early and significant snowfall is necessary in order to have a winter snowpack. Otherwise the smaller storms of winter are largely eroded by the wind, sublimation and warming of the exposed ground.

THE FIRST WINTER I spent here was 1991-1992. A snowstorm dumped a couple of feet on the ground the week before Halloween, and this provided a base to which other smaller snowstorms added. The snow hung on through the winter, and I distinctly remember stepping off my back deck on cross-country skis and gliding out over the fence tops in mid-April. The last patches were still apparent in early May when the white finally gave way to intense green.

The following winters were largely dry and windy, but all ended with a wet, late-season blizzard. In particular, one memorable mid-May storm in the mid 90s left about two feet of snow in a single morning. Broken branches from Ponderosa Pines still litter the ground from that storm. That snow melted in about two days leaving the landscape a bright green.

Of course the biggest of all snow events in the last eleven winters occurred overnight on Thanksgiving, 1997. It would be tough to forget four feet of concrete that left us wondering just exactly where we’d left our vehicles.

That winter very little snow was added to the original base, which stayed with us until mid-March when one particularly warm day swept most of it away from the still-frozen ground in flash-flood fashion.

This is not to say that we have not had any snow here besides these major storms, but rather that other snows have probably had much less impact on the underground water supply. When you consider sublimation rates and frost lines, I wonder if they’ve contributed much at all.

The water below the Wet Mountains is quite different from that in the Wet Mountain Valley floor, across the range in the San Luis Valley, where an underground bathtub of groundwater is fed by the ranges. Here the water lies in cracks, fissures, and caverns of very old precambrian rock. Nobody seems to know how much water is down there, or how or when it got there, or where it comes from.

After his well went dry, one neighbor drilled 435 feet to get a ¾-gallon-a-minute flow, while another neighbor has to cap a 40-gallon- a-minute gusher at less than half that depth. I’m delighted that my 3.7 gallons per minute at 150 feet has seemingly held out since the house was built by the original owners in 1981.

IN TRUTH, I think the summer rains get the job done. In most years the almost daily thunderstorms keep the unfrozen ground damp, and the fairly common gully washer could recharge underground supplies for years.

It’s possible I’m now drinking water that fell in the flash flood of June, 2001, when the gully below my house ran like a river. Or perhaps I’m drinking water from an even bigger storm that occurred hundreds of years ago. There’s really no way of knowing.

On a road trip late last summer I passed through the San Luis Valley. Pivot sprinklers watered alfalfa crops, and locals said that though the closed-basin aquifer level was down, there was still a great deal of water below the earth there.

Just over the New Mexico line, the hills were lightly green from recent light rains. However, farther south this gave way to immense stands of dead piñon trees. Soakers at Ojo Caliente hot springs said it was common knowledge the pine beetles were on the march since the dry trees could not produce sap in defense.

Meanwhile, here in the Wet Mountains, most of the trees live on, and I have a new kitchen sink and faucet atop a 150-foot pipe with no determinable source or quantity of water. The new sink is perhaps a sacramental font, its faux granite basins an altar, and the brass handles amulets, to the hope that water will continue to flow from it.

Hal Walter’s words flow from his burro ranch in the Wet Mountains.