Burton on the Bay:
All in the Same Boat
-- Out of the Water

It is the saddest land I have ever seen.

   -Roving reporter Ernie Pyle writing 
   from Garden City, Kan., June 1936

Old timers remember Ernie Pyle better for his later battlefield reports. Undoubtedly by the time a Japanese sniper got him in World War II, he had witnessed even sadder lands and events. But the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression certainly was no picnic.

Probably few still around recall that the big drought that added so much misery to the Great Depression first emerged in 1930 in the East, from Maine to Arkansas. Two years later, it was moving fast to the Midwest as far as the shade of the Rockies.

Drought is unlike floods, tornadoes or hurricanes. Drought creeps, undetected at first; once settled its impact is catastrophic.

Curiously, few citizens are taking serious this drought hereabouts: Hell, water still flows from the faucet, so what's the worry? They're the lucky ones. For many not linked to municipal supplies, the well is going dry; for others it's already dry. You might say there's no water on their water table, that precious vein of fluid deep down in the earth.

One had to experience it to appreciate the calamitous consequences of the Dust Bowl. I am old enough to have experienced it, which poses a dilemma of conscience these days.


Between Desire and a Dry Place

The current drought hit home two months ago when I postponed my annual mid-June vacation to Deep Creek Lake to be around when the wild blackberries ripened on the steep slope from the side lawn to Stoney Creek. For more than a decade, there had been a conflict between the bass at DCL and fresh and juicy blackberries on my cereal at home - and I chose fish'n.

This year I stayed home and missed both. As the torrid drought was settling in, the green berries turned harder still. Some blackened a bit while shriveling up. Even the birds weren't interested in them.

Lately, Ernie Pyle's words on the Dust Bowl haunt me, as they did this morning when I debated whether to fill the birdbath with precious water from the hose. I did, figuring brackish Stoney Creek could be too salty for birds and squirrels now. Where else would they bathe?

Also, where would they drink - as do the catbirds who slurp some of the grape jelly from the feeder, then dart to the bird bath for gulps of water to wash it down.

Then came the dilemma of the sapling silver maple I planted three years ago when it was barely more than a sprout, two leaves and straggly stem. The rabbits got most of it, but tender care and water kept it alive. The following spring, and the last, rabbits chewed it off again, but TLC and water kept it alive. Now it's almost three feet high.

Should I water it, and if so how? Watering direct from the hose as allowed by drought regulations would waste water. Only so much would reach the roots; much would evaporate or otherwise be wasted. The probe of a root-watering system would put the fluid down among the thirsty roots, but that would violate the hand-held-hose-only clause of the Glendening water conservation edict.

Break the law and save water or abide by it and waste water? Then I remembered what my friend Alex did, and followed suit. When the wash and rinse cycles of the washing machine were completed, I scooped the water from the tub into a bucket, probed a hole to the root system and poured the "grey" water into it. A lot of time-consuming work, but a saving of perhaps five gallons of water.

Wife Lois' Aunt Loretta recycles water from the dehumidifier and condensation drippings from the air conditioner to do her part. I'm considering sharing the shower with a bucket to catch reusable water for plants.


There until It Ain't

Water we take for granted. It's always there until it ain't there - and when it ain't there, there's really nothing we can do about it other than pray and wait for rain, lots of rain.

Municipal systems can tap into reserve sources as Baltimore is doing to the Susquehanna River, but the reserves are running low. The Susky's flow is not much more than a third of normal with no rains in the upper watershed to replenish what runs into the Chesapeake or is tapped by Baltimore and other communities.

Slowly rivers, creeks, streams, reservoirs, ponds are going dry; Liberty Reservoir in Baltimore County is down almost 30 feet; Cattail Creek on the Magothy is bone dry. Many people complain about the inconveniences of Gov. Glendening's emergency restrictions, but many who depend on wells draw water sparingly, and others already are forced to borrow from neighbors. Yet this could be only the beginning. There's no rain in sight.

Some dairy and beef farmers are already taking their livestock to market, prematurely, because they can no longer afford to feed them. Others are digging wells to save crops or water livestock, which means more pressure on the already stressed water table.


Waters Gone Awry

While we're inconvenienced and farmers are going broke, our natural resources are displaying drought-related stress. The ecological balance is going awry.

This goes far beyond things like Vick Hastings catching, near Holland Point at Rose Haven, a 22-inch cobia that took advantage of the drought-related high Bay salinity to travel much farther north than can be recalled by old timers. Or the black drum netted at Hart & Miller Island far above the Bay Bridge. Or Capt. Joe Rupp's wife Janet catching a pompano off Tilghman Island. Unheard of.

High and dry, aquatic vegetation so valuable to marine life is endangered. Higher salinity in the Bay makes oysters once again more vulnerable to disease.

One state trout hatchery is almost out of water, which could mean premature release of fish into the Potomac River below Jennings Randolph Reservoir to save them. Of less consequence it could also mean fewer and smaller fish for traditional spring stocking in 2000.

We might appreciate one aspect of the drought - fewer mosquitoes and other bugs - but some fish depend on aquatic insects, as do quail, wild turkeys, pheasants and many other creatures.

In forests, mast crops from bushes and trees are enduring retarded maturity, and slow growth means less to eat for squirrels, deer and bears. We're all in the same boat, currently a boat out of the water.

Most just naturally assume before long the skies will open and correct nature's mistakes. Hey, there are no guarantees, and saying so is not just being an alarmist. Ask those of the Dust Bowl days when nearly three million people fled parched land and when clouds of dust swept from vulnerable dry soil of the Midwest could some days be seen in Baltimore.

Nature has no conscience. It can be beautiful, and it can also be cruel and unforgiving. So what can we do?

We can treat water for what it is, the most precious substance on earth, and recognize that every drop counts. Enough said.

| Issue 32 |

Volume VII Number 32
August 12-18, 1999
New Bay Times

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