Friday, July 27, 2007

drought

I’ve never been so glad to see the rain. I’m sitting here at the cottage in central Wisconsin, looking out the window and enjoying seeing and hearing the rainfall. It’s been a long time since we’ve had any significant showers. Consequently most of the state has been suffering drought conditions for the past month.

Here at the lake we can measure the severity of the drought just by looking at our pier and seeing the high water line on the stanchions and comparing that to the water level. Right now the lake has been the lowest in the 16 years we’ve been coming here. It is not a deep lake to begin with, so losing nearly 3 feet of depth is a near catastrophe. My pier extends 40 feet into the lake and at the farthest reach the water is only 2 inches deep. We can’t even get into our kayaks from the pier since they need more than 2 inches of water to float.

The lack of rain in this area, and of course in other parts of the state, is the main topic of conversation everywhere you go. Everyone is concerned not only about the farm crops, but also the tourist industry which suffers when lake levels fall. Our lake has been in the past a favorite fishing venue for sportsmen and a well used recreational area for waterskiers and waverunners. But in the past month the fishermen have stopped coming around and the water is too shallow to allow motorboats to get their motors working. On the one hand the quiet is wonderful, but on the other hand the local economy is taking a big hit this season.

The falling lake levels—ours is not the only one suffering—are certainly a result of the rainfall shortage, but there are other factors at work too. This part of the state is heavily agricultural and farms regularly irrigate their crops. Many of the corn fields and soybean fields have giant irrigation sprinklers that suck hundreds of thousands of gallons of water from the water table on a regular basis. Their deep wells siphon off water that helps to replenish the lakes and keep local home wells functioning. The state granted irrigation licenses to the farmers in the past couple years without doing a thorough study of the potential consequences. Now that the irrigation has been going on for awhile those consequences are all too evident. Local wells are drying up and lake levels are falling.

While I don’t advocate a stop to crop irrigation, I do think there has to be some better oversight and closer regulation of the irrigation practices. I can understand the argument that food crops take precedence over other needs, but much of the corn crop from this area is grown to feed the growing ethanol industry, which is not yet a proven economical fuel alternative. Allowing unregulated irrigation of that crop seems to be catering to a private entrepreneurial special interest at the expense of tourism and recreational interests.

Also being affected by drying up lakes are the property values of the homes on those lakes. With falling property values comes a falling tax base which affects everyone in the communities that rely on those taxes for public services.

And while I am not overly worried about the current water levels—historically lake levels fluctuate on a regular schedule spread over 7-8 years—I do think that more attention needs to be paid to the use of such a valuable resource as our lakes and rivers and the regulatory process that controls them. Left unsaid are the concerns about the quality of that water. That’s a discussion for another time.

So until a change in the longterm weather, I will sit here and enjoy the splattering sound of raindrops against the window and be thankful for everydrop.

2 comments:

Artistic Soul said...

Yikes! When we were out, the levels seemed okay...is it that great a difference in 2-3 weeks? It rained a couple times while we were out as well - big storms! It's a fine balance as you say. I really do hope to visit up your way again soon - really loved the state!!

Len said...

The well we had up at the farm house near Neenah had a well that went dry. Once redrilled we were able to use the well for double duty. As well as water , I could order Joeyburgers from Oz just by yelling down it.