Sunday, September 6, 2009

Drought, with a Side of Pig

I went out to the Bamberger Ranch Preserve on August 19th to do some work on David Bamberger's computer, see David, and take in the sights. David's computer was doing fine, but David and the sights weren't doing well at all. David was/is being tortured by a case of shingles, and the land is suffering severely from our drought. Allow me to demonstrate that last point visually:

Above is what ranchers call a "tank", a water storage area, frequently artificially constructed or enhanced, intended to provide livestock with access to water. This one is artificial and constructed at the head of a valley. I shot the photo while standing on the right end of the earthen dam that should be retaining the tank's water. You can see a straight line depression in the earth running from the lower center of the picture to the right and down; that's the spillway for handling overflows. This tank, at its deepest, is maybe six feet deep when full, but is generally of a shallow and broad character. When it's raining, the tank is fed by runoff from the plateau above and the surrounding valley walls. The rest of the time it's fed by a spring. At this point, however, it's no longer fed by anything at all. Normal rains haven't come for more than two years, so there's no runoff, and no recharge of the aquifer that feeds the spring. If you didn't know it was a tank, it'd be easy to mistake it for just another area of dusty, sunburned land.

Indeed, the landscape was so transformed that it wasn't until I reached that tank, that I realized I wasn't even in the valley I thought I was in. The last time I'd visited this particular valley was in April of 2007, when its entrance was a sedge meadow, with a steady trickle of water running through the middle of it, as seen below, in a subsection of a panorama. Needless to say, it looked nothing like that during my latest visit, though it didn't occur to me at the time to take a picture of what it did look like, unfortunately.

But that was a small valley. Its neighbor is much larger, which means much larger runoff and recharge zones, a better spring, and a tank many times the size of its neighbor. I was amazed to find that it still held water, but it had very little, and what there was of it looked thick and of a poisonously orange color. It was supporting a group of turtles, but I don't imagine that there was much else left alive in it.

To fully appreciate the effects of the drought on the state of that tank and the surrounding land, it helps to see it under good conditions. Because I've been photographing that valley for years, I happen to have a shot of that tank (a portion of a heretofore unreleased panorama) in my files. So, below is the same tank, seen from about twenty feet to the right, on April 21, 2007, a year when the normal rains did come, if only during the spring. The tank isn't full (the water level is well below the spillway on the right), but it's in good shape and the land is downright verdant by comparison to its current state.

This is a hint of what the central Texas hill country can look like, if the land is well managed, and our yearly ≅30 inches of rain falls. It's a fair first approximation, to this Texan's eyes, of paradise. But, as I said, it's only a hint because, if memory serves, we'd had about nine years of sub-normal rains prior to the fall of 2006 and the spring of 2007, and the rains went back to sub-normal shortly after that spring.

My recent visit to that parched tank did bring one pleasant(-ish) surprise, however: an encounter with a feral pig. (At first I thought it was a javelina, which would have been truly pleasant, but, not having seen a javelina in around thirty years, my memory of their appearance turned-out to be in sad shape.) Due to the drought, she was very lean, and the six piglets with her were still quite small. The piglets stuck to the shadows under nearby brush, while mom and I stood there for some time in the punishing afternoon sun. When she finally turned to take a good look at me, she soon trotted away, up a trail, with the piglets in tow.

Below, by way of comparison, are a few members of a feral pig clan that I encountered in the ranch's Sun Valley, near sunset, during the lush spring of 2007. There was nothing lean about them.


The feral pigs are a problem, unfortunately, not only because they are an introduced species, but because they engage in damaging behavior including: the creation of wallows; the destruction of ground nesting species such as turkey, quail, rabbits, and others – even deer fawns; they damage fences; and on rare occasions they will go so far as to attack people. They are also likely to be competing with the increasingly scarce (and still actively hunted) native javelinas for habitat. However, on that April evening, in that valley, with plump piglets happily chasing one another through deep grass, and the adults contentedly rooting around, the scene was rather idyllic.

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