The VICE Channels

    Notes from America's Forever-Drought

    Written by

    Michael Byrne


    Image: Tim Keegan/Creative Commons

    The other morning, in my other life, I was planting cantaloupe seeds in the bit of farm I manage. This is within a much larger farm and ranch not far from the Utah-Colorado border that’s sandwiched between a Native American reservation and a massive span of protected, undeveloped public land. We have water rights, a lot of them, so we can grow large amounts of hay. And hay has never been in more demand than right now in the southwest U.S. for the simple reason that drought has killed off most anything green and naturally occurring that horses and cows might normally eat during the summer. The drought has been going on for about 11 years (as a collection of regional droughts) with only a couple of patches of wet respite.

    Anyhow, that morning a dude came by looking for work. He didn’t want to work for money, just hay. That hay would go back to the reservation to feed his grandmother’s sheep, who have nothing to graze on anymore because there’s no water to make things grow. The situation’s pretty simple: no hay, no sheep. No way of life. (The economics of keeping sheep, particularly on a reservation, are a bit complicated and off-topic.) So, money could come later after banking enough hay. That seems like a pretty good exemplification of what drought is in real-world terms: trading work for hay to keep livestock alive. (He left with a truck full of hay, by the by.)

    The situation generalizes in several directions to an entirely out-of-work dry farming industry (e.g. farms that rely on rainfall and don’t have guaranteed irrigation availability and the many people that work on them) to massive and unprecedented wildfires, to failing staple crops like corn and wheat. And most of this occurs out of sight of places where most people live; the drought manages to take its toll one step removed from the population that nonetheless depends on farm economies. Even the most way cool locavore will manage to feel the damage as the catastrophic economic suck happening in the middle of the country ripples outward (every part of the economy hits the common substrates of banks and the feds, eventually).

    The current upper-limit cost figure for the current drought is $80 billion. For comparison's sake, Hurricane Sandy cost about $63 billion: Katrina, $81 billion. A notable difference is that the hurricanes have ended.

    The past few days have brought what’s known as “dry lightning”—along with record-breaking heat all over the Southwest—which is what it sounds like: lightning that occurs without rainfall. In wildfire terms, this is about equivalent to a bombing raid. Lightning hits dry, dead fuel with nothing to temper the ensuing fire, just lots of wind to spread it. The massive West Fork fire a couple hours east of here was almost settling down, but not is spreading again thanks to renewed winds and lightning strikes. There’s still no actual rain in the forecast, just more dust, smoke, and lightning. Drought is almost like the inverse of a hurricane, but it feels just as apocalyptic.

    The two phenomena have something in common, of course: global warming. As the climate changes, extreme events become much more likely. You know this already. You should also know how climate change is warming winters over the Rockies and killing off the high altitude snowpack reservoirs that drought states depend on to fill the manmade reservoirs needed to keep irrigation water flowing for the farmers and ranchers lucky enough to have access to it. In a sense, the current drought is a sort of drought purgatory, keeping the agriculture industry alive but suffering. Let's hope to never see drought hell.

    Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv.