How Low Can They Go? Extreme Drought Reduces Western Lake Levels To Historic Lows

Finally, a shortage of something we can’t blame on the pandemic. What don’t we have enough of now? WATER. While we may be able to survive, although perhaps not comfortably or healthily, without toilet paper and Lysol wipes, humans simply must have water to live. Extreme drought conditions in the western United States are concerning as they have reduced levels of water bodies to historic lows. What’s going on and how bad is it really?

The fact that a drought is occurring does not in and of itself spell doom. Droughts are recurring climate events in most parts of the world. In fact, droughts are among the earliest documented weather events in human history. For example, the story of Joseph in the Bible is tied to agricultural shortages due to drought. Unfortunately, droughts are becoming more unpredictable and more extreme due to climate change.

Some folks may not be able to spell drought (HINT: Don’t rely on phonetics) much less be able to define it. So what exactly is a drought? A drought occurs when there is a prolonged period of abnormally low precipitation, either rain or snow. Effects of a drought include crop damage, water shortage, diminished water flow, and reduced soil moisture. Whether you look to water for drinking, growing crops, or a recreational venue, a drought spells bad news. (At least “bad news” is easier to spell than “drought.”)

The length of time a drought may last is one of its unpredictable characteristics. First of all, it is hard to tell when a drought commences because its effects don’t appear until after a prolonged period of low precipitation. Once underway, it can last for months or even (GASP!) years.

When asked to identify a devastating weather event, people are likely to say a hurricane or tornado. Nevertheless, according to the National Geographic Society, droughts are the second most costly weather event after hurricanes. A big part of that cost is agricultural losses. Why? Because water is needed to grow crops. While “agricultural losses” may not seem a daunting phrase, read that effect as meaning food production takes a hit. There will be less food to put on the table, and the food that is available will be more expensive.

Over 150 million acres of crops in the western U.S. are touched by at least a moderate drought right now. What specific agricultural losses could result? This year’s spring wheat harvest is 41% below the 2020 level. Producing almost half as much of this grain as the previous year’s output is a steep drop. Add oats to the drought’s hit list as well. According to Bloomberg.com, this year’s U.S. oat crop is expected to be the smallest since 1866. Yes, that’s 1866, over a century and a half ago. Yikes!

OK, but that’s just grain. But wait; there’s more! One hundred percent of the State of California is experiencing drought conditions at the present time. The Golden State produces 1/3 of the country’s vegetables and 2/3 of its fruits and nuts. Without sufficient water for the state’s crops, the entire country will suffer from the greatly reduced bounty from the land.

According to scientists, climate change intensifies drought conditions. What the western U.S. is now undergoing has been referred to as a “megadrought.” This time last year only about 20% of the West was experiencing “severe drought.” That number is up to 80% this year, and the area affected comprises nearly half of the continental United States and affects over 70 million people.

Utah is especially hard hit with more than 99% of that state classified as in extreme to exceptional drought, the two most severe levels on the U.S. Drought Monitor. Utah’s Great Salt Lake, the largest natural natural lake west of the Mississippi River, has seen water levels plummet to a historic low, breaking a record set over 50 years ago in 1963. Even scarier? It’s not even the point of the year when that water body typically hits its lowest levels. Thus, water levels are likely to continue dropping. How low will they go? We probably don’t want to know.

The Great Salt Lake is not the only water body getting slammed by the drought. Water levels at Lake Powell, the second largest reservoir in the country, have also reached a record low. As of Sunday, the lake had fallen to 33% capacity. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said last week it expects the lake’s elevation to drop another two feet by the end of this month. This declining water level threatens the Glen Canyon Dam’s capacity to produce hydropower for a number of states including Arizona, Colorado, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. Uh, oh! Less water, less food, and now less power.

Back in June, the nation’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead which is located near Las Vegas, hit a record-low water level as well. I’m betting that’s not a good omen for Western residents. Both Lake Mead and Lake Powell are fed by the Colorado River and provide a critical supply of drinking water as well as water for irrigation for farms, ranches, and Native American communities. The two reservoirs are part of a river system supplying over 40 million people over seven states and Mexico. The handwriting on the wall is that people are going to have no choice but to institute water conservation measures.

These drought conditions should be a splash of cold water in our faces. We must realize our existence is tied to our environment. We have to recognize that water is a valuable resource and grasp just how dependent we are upon its availability. We need to give some thought to the future, both near and distant, and how we might better utilize and conserve what water is available. Turning a blind eye to droughts won’t solve the problem, and if you think it will, you’re all wet.

Just WONDER-ing:

Do you take the availability of water for drinking and other uses for granted? Did you realize the drought in the West was so severe? Do the current extreme drought conditions affect your thinking about the impact of climate change in any way? If so, how?

The Whole World’s Your Oyster Unless You’re In Apalachicola

The end of 2020 approaches. Hallelujah! How about celebrating the demise of this dreadful year with a decadent treat? You could slurp down oysters on the half shell or, if you are more refined, dine on oysters Rockefeller. Whatever your pleasure, you won’t be eating any oysters from the oyster capital of the world because harvesting of wild oysters from Apalachicola Bay has been shut down through 2025. Add yet another black mark to the list of what has transpired in 2020.

So oysters cannot be harvested from one particular location. What’s the big deal? Well, it is a big deal. In the first place, Apalachicola (familiarly “Apalach” to locals) has historically produced 90% of Florida’s oysters and 10% of the nation’s supply. The annual harvest dropped from 3 million pounds in 2009, worth around $9 million, to less than 21,000 pounds in 2019. The supply of oysters in Apalachicola Bay is dwindling. Bye, bye bivalves! Needless to say the economy of Apalachicola, a small town with a population around 2,300, has taken a huge hit and the lives of many of the residents dependent on that industry have been devastated.

But it isn’t just people who have been impacted. The lack of oysters is a troubling sign for the environment. The loss of Apalachicola Bay as an oyster source is evidence that the capacity to produce oysters naturally is waning. The oysters harvested from this area are from some of the last commercially worked wild oyster beds in the country. Almost all the other oysters produced are farmed. Wild, naturally produced oysters are more appealing to me that ones that are artificially farmed. Of course, those of you who are grossed out by the yuk factor of oysters (they look slimy but taste delicious) could care less how they come to be on your plate.

Even worse, oysters are what is called an indicator species which tells about the overall health of an estuary. A drastic reduction in the oyster population does not bode well for the environment in which they grow. In 2013 the federal government declared Apalachicola Bay a disaster area. The environmental situation is so dire that the State of Florida is utilizing a $20 million grant to help restore the bay. That’s right. We need money to mend the mollusk milieu.

The mollusk milieu, Apalachicola Bay, is an estuary in north Florida where freshwater rivers meet the Gulf of Mexico. One of those rivers is the Apalachicola River which is named for the indigenous people who used to live along it; this water body is Florida’s largest river by volume. The resulting water combination when the river meets the Gulf is a brackish, or slightly salty, mix ideal for growing plump, salty oysters. Mmm, mmm.

A number of factors have contributed to the decline of the health of Apalachicola Bay. These factors include the BP oil disaster, droughts, Hurricane Michael, and the lack of freshwater from upstream. Droughts have left the bay lethally salty for the oysters who thrive in brackish water. An increase in salt in the water also increases the presence of oyster predators, which include fish and birds. Apparently humans are not the only ones who enjoy slurping down the mollusks.

On top of years of drought which have devastated the wild oyster beds, Apalachicola Bay has been receiving less freshwater from upstream. Blame the northerners! In this case, the northerners are the residents of the Atlanta metropolitan area.

Hotlanta uses water upstream as a water supply for several million people and has been drawing more and more water. Less freshwater means increased salinity in Apalachicola Bay, a threat to its oysters beds’ vitality. A three decades-long water war in the courts has been waged between the states of Georgia and Florida regarding the upstream water use. As the states slugged it out in the courtroom, back at the bay the oysters were dying off.

COVID-19 may be killing off humans, but by their actions humans are killing their environment and the oysters naturally produced in Apalachicola Bay. The moratorium on harvesting wild oysters in the Bay offers an opportunity to turn the situation around. The five year closure imposed by Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Committee this month gives wild oyster reefs time to regenerate. The ban could be lifted prior to the elapse of five years if the oyster populations rebound.

Failure of the oyster population to make a come back would be a sad historical event. Humans have enjoyed oysters, which are packed with nutrients, for thousands of years. These saltwater bivalve mollusks which typically range in size from 3″ to 14,” (14 inches? Egad!) even rated a mention in Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” The bard’s play contains the line “the world’s mine oyster.”

Although most of us don’t go around quoting Shakespeare, we’ve probably all heard someone say in conversation, “The world’s your (or my) oyster,” meaning there is the opportunity to achieve great success. Unfortunately, the world literally is the human race’s oyster. Far from achieving success, it appears that we have driven our habitat to the brink of environmental disaster with the wild oyster beds in Apalachicola Bay on the frontline of casualties. With no oysters available, understanding lines from Shakespeare is going to be even more difficult.

Just WONDER-ing:

Do you eat oysters? If so, what’s your favorite way to eat them? How alarming is it to you that the ability to produce wild oysters is dwindling? Were you aware that the phrase “the world’s my oyster” has it origin in a Shakespeare play?