Column: Our own little drought

Published 6:28 pm Thursday, September 15, 2005

By Staff
Man, it's so dry here in Southwest Michigan even the frogs and turtles are spittin' dust. Being a forest fire fighter, I tend to measure dryness by fire activity. Beginning in late March wild fires started popping up everywhere. Normally by late May the woods and fields have greened up enough to where we stow our gear and don't even think about fires but this year we were fighting them well into June. The fall fire season is usually short to nonexistent, depending on rainfall. If a fire season does occur it's normally in October when the leaves have fallen and humidity is down. This year I've already been on three fires since the Labor Day weekend.
Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on where you live, the worst of this drought is in a small area encompassing Cass County and portions of Van Buren and Allegan County. Since the area is so small it's going largely unnoticed by all but farmers and firemen. For my own curiosity I hoped to find out just how dry this year has been compared to the norm. That turned out to be harder than one might think because the most accessible weather monitoring stations are in Grand Rapids and South Bend. For most of the year whatever rains were coming our way passed either just to the north or south of us so the records show considerable more rain than we received here.
Even at that, Grand Rapids records show an exceptionally dry spring. Average rainfall from April through August is around three and a half inches per month. Grand Rapids received only seven tenths of an inch in April and a little over an inch in May. During June and July Grand Rapids actually exceeded the average rainfall, in June by a whopping twice as much and by a half inch in July. We didn't get much of that here, though. We were fighting fires in Allegan County while it was pouring buckets full just a few miles to the north. In August the drought resumed with only one and a half inches of rain at Grand Rapids. Of course, so far in September we haven't even seen a cloud.
Most of us non-farmers just think of a drought period as something to open a conversation with. "Sure is dry, isn't it?" There are serious ramifications to nature, though. I have various spots in the Allegan State Game Area where I collect wildflower seed. Butterfly weed and blazingstar is nearing time for seed collection so the other day I checked some of my best spots. An area that normally sports dozens of butterfly weeds was entirely void. Not a single plant. Moving on to a spot that usually hosts hundreds of blazingstars I only found a couple little scrawny plants. Earlier attempts to find coreopsis were equally futile. These are all perennials so those plants are dead and gone forever. Obviously, very little wildflower seed was produced this year jeopardizing future generations. The lack of wildflowers is devastating to butterflies and other insects that depend on them for nectar and larvae food plants.
I can't explain why, but the drought apparently affects streams as well. Most of the streams in our area have flowed muddy all spring and summer. One would think that would be a product of excessive rain rather than drought but I can find no other explanation. Gooey silt has now covered much of the gravel and sand bottoms allowing abnormal amounts of aquatic vegetation to grow. I'll guess this all due to slower water flow which can't wash the sediment on downstream.
Even with the modest rains of June and July we were still left with a yearly deficit. That means going back into the drought period in August the soil dried out faster than usual and is now just dust and hardpan without a hint of moisture for many feet down. Streams, ponds and marshes weren't restored to their normal levels so are experiencing abnormally low water as well. If this drought continues on to freeze up Ma Nature will really have troubles next year. Y'all practice up on your rain dance, ya' hear? Carpe diem.