Archive for the ‘Drought’ Category

Off My Head

© 2015 By Bob Litton
During the past 2-1/2 years I have written a few posts “off the top of my head” because I had no deeper topics ready for publication. That is the case again today, but I feel that old journalist’s demon — deadline — breathing hotly on my neck.

It is very odd for me to feel any deadline pressure, since this blog is not a job in the sense of working for somebody else and expecting remuneration; nor do I solicit advertising. The blog is supposed to be a labor of love, yet I often find it to be a spur in my side because I don’t want my regular readers to imagine I have tossed away my computer or died.

I do in fact have a couple of longer, more serious topics roiling in my noggin, but they need more time to develop; so I will let them simmer for a while.

In the meantime, I have pulled out my cylindrical kaleidoscope and will now twist, peer, and record.

Citizens’ Comments

Every year about this time, the city council of this little town (population: 6,000+) reviews the order and procedures for council meetings as published in the city charter. And each time they do that, some two or three council members, in concert with the order-fanatic titled “city manager”, connive to set tighter restrictions on citizens’ comments.

This year, a revised “order and procedures” ordinance has already been approved on first reading and is scheduled for its second, final reading next Tuesday (August 4th). The salient changes are (1) the “citizens’ comments” period would be restricted to early in the meeting — before items are discussed and acted on by the council; no citizens’ comments will be allowed during the “discussion/action” period as they have been allowed to date; and (2) only citizens who own property or operate a business within the City limits will be permitted to comment. Non-property-owners will be allowed time at the mike only if there is enough extra time available, a decision that belongs to the mayor. Each commenter’s time to speak will be limited to three minutes, a limit that has been in effect for a long time.

I have no problem with the three-minute limit. I know it seems too brief in print, but actually I and most of the other citizens who have commented during those nights I was in attendance have managed to utter our opinions and suggestions unhurriedly within the three-minute period. Last year, however, the city manager wanted to reduce the comment time to two minutes. After a bunch of us citizens raised hell about that reduction, the proposal was dropped.

Other suggested changes last year — ones even more arbitrary and authoritarian than the time issue — included (1) requiring citizens who wished to comment to come into City Hall a couple of hours prior to council meeting time and sign a roster; (2) limiting the number of commenters to eight; and (3) reducing the periods open for comments from three to one. (In the past, citizens could comment prior to the discussion/action time, during the discussion/action time, and at the end of the meeting.

I and several other citizens complained about those proposed changes, pointing out how absurd and draconian they were: an acceptable compromise was worked out in which all the proposed add-on requirements were dropped, and only the end-of-the-meeting comments period was deleted. Such is the agenda we have today, which is threatened by the proposed ordinance revision.

Will any of my readers in the United Kingdom, Canada, India, France, Brazil, etc., be surprised to read that I am “mad as a wet hen(rooster)” about the suggested new restrictions on citizens’ comments? I wonder.  Well, I’ll tell you now, I intend to be present at next Tuesday’s council meeting and fuss at them. I just hope a bunch of other citizens will be there as well.

Twist the kaleidoscope again and peer:

Bird potties

The campus on which my apartment is located is dotted with a surplus of trees: scrub oak and non-bearing pear. The scrub oaks are scattered all over the place; the non-bearing pear trees line the drive and parking area.

The only positive things I can say about  the scrub oaks is that they provide welcome areas of shade and, like all other trees, clarify the air of some carbon atoms. The bad thing about them is that, when their old leaves fall, they get blown to, and collect on, my porch—right in front of my door. The leaves are devilishly reluctant to be swept off, too. (I swear they are sentient!)

As for the non-bearing pear trees, I will acknowledge their great beauty in the spring when they blossom in gorgeous white petals for a few weeks. Also, they attract honey bees, which I favor because I love honey and appreciate the good deed bees perform in pollinating our food plants. The bees’ survival is now threatened by some kind of virus and predator wasps.

The negative aspect of the pear trees, as such, is that they exude a sap after their blossoms fall, and that sap drips onto our parked vehicles: it is no fun to wash off. The fallen blossoms are a headache for the lawn keeper to sweep, but that is not my problem.

But the biggest nuisance of all when considering the pear trees is that, since their canopies are partly above the parking area, the perching pigeons, sparrows, swallows and even the occasional song birds bomb our cars and trucks with their blasted poop.

Now, you all know, I am sure, that bird baths and bird feeders have been around for a long, long time. We have a few bird feeders here on the campus, but no bird baths. Perhaps the apartment manager should invest in a couple of those. However, I wish somebody would invent a bird potty and train the birds to use it. It would take only a generation or so, I should think, for the birds to become accustomed to the innovation: It would become part of their nature.

Time for one more twist of the kaleidoscope:

Food and Drinks

Well, it looks like “Big Brother” is leading the way!

I have read recently that bathing every day is not a necessity; in fact, that it is bad for your skin cells. We need, they say, a layer of dead cells to protect the developing new cells. So, a bath only once or twice a week should be sufficient. I have been able, so far, to maintain the twice-a-week regimen; but I cannot stand my masculine aroma after a weekly regimen.

Moreover, they are saying now that the old recommendation of eight glasses of water a day to drink is too much. I did not pay much attention to that article, since I drink only about three glasses of water (with my pills) a day.

They are even searching for alternatives to water, such as treated urine. You recall, do you not, how NASA installed a urine-purification system on the space station. I have not heard yet how the astronauts and cosmonauts have reacted to that.

As for food, the new cuisine now apparently includes ants, crickets and grasshoppers. I recall a 1962 film, Mondo Cane (Dog’s World), in which an affluent couple dined on a $125-plate of chocolate-covered ants in some exclusive New York restaurant: The thesis of the documentary film was how foolish we humans—all over the world—are. Also, there was the 1960 film, The Savage Innocents, in which the Eskimo protagonist (played by Anthony Quinn) offered a small bowl of maggots to an intrusive missionary; when the missionary refused that food as well as an invitation to “laugh with” the Eskimo’s wife, the Eskimo became angry and cracked the missionary’s head against an igloo wall. I read somewhere years later that maggots are in fact rich in protein, although they are more readily accepted as food when transformed into insects.

And now it is time to put my kaleidoscope up. Good night!!!

Fin

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Waylan The Water Man

© 1980, 2011, 2014 By Bob Litton

Jack Forga- Ron COleman- Waylan Martin & Richard Sitz

Democrat Ron(ald) Coleman (U.S. Rep. for 16th District of Texas from 1983 to 1997) is greeted at the Monahans airport by Waylan Martin (under hat), chairman of the Ward County Republicans. I confess to tricking the two into the “photo op” because of their contrasting political allegiances, but I also wanted to get the two together to work on the water conservation issue.

NOTE TO READER: For those who have not discerned as much by reading through my blog posts, the ones even tangentially referencing politics, I am a liberal down to the marrow. Therefore, I tend to vote as a Democrat, although there have been times in the past when I voted for one or two Republicans in statewide races because they seemed to be best qualified for whatever posts they were seeking. However, since 1980, and even more so since 2000, I have been so angered by Republican policies and tactics that I have voted a straight Democrat party ticket. I have painted the Republicans with perhaps an overly broad brush, judging the ones in power as oligarchists and their supporters as either of the same ilk or as gullible fools.

During my turn as editor of the Monahans News, in the early 1980s, though, I met a Republican gentleman who was exactly that: a gentleman, and a good-natured one at that. His name was Waylan Martin. At the time I met him he was a member of the county hospital’s board of directors. It was, of course, one of my duties to attend that board’s meetings and report them in the paper. Waylan and I became good friends—in fact, he probably was my best friend; that position is hard to measure absolutely. We had coffee together most mornings and we occasionally went flying in Waylan’s four-seat plane.

Waylan was also the chair for the Ward County Republicans. I teased him about that a few times, but mostly we did not let politics get in the way of our friendship. In retrospect, I now marvel that politics did not injure our relationship, because I never blushed at raking the Republicans over the coals in my newspaper column.

One issue Waylan and I definitely were in agreement on was the need to protect and enhance our water resources. We especially were in tune to the idea of canals from the Missouri River into Texas, with several reservoirs in between, in order to make the best use of flood waters. (The Ogallala Aquifer extends from South Dakota into the northern border of the Permian Basin, where we lived.) Beginning in 1977 and continuing into the early 1980s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did a cost/benefit study of such a canal system and derived an estimated cost (in 1977 dollars) of $3.6 billion to deliver 1.6 Million acre feet per year to western Kansas and $22.6 billion per year to deliver 6 million acre feet to the northern panhandle of Texas and the panhandle of Oklahoma. Congress never approved the project.

Waylan closed his water lab sometime in the 1990s in order to retire and move to Plano where his daughter resided. He died about a decade ago, I believe. The lab building is still standing—vacant.

Yes, Waylan was my friend, even though he was also a Republican, for that was a time when Republicans and Democrats could still agree on some matters at least.

* * * * * *

“The very existence of our way of life — of life itself — is dependent on water,” says Monahans water analyst Waylan Martin. “Lots of people look at me like they don’t believe me when I tell them that, but it’s true. They say, ‘But what about food?’ and I’ll tell them, ‘You can’t have food without water.’”

Martin, a native of Barstow, has been in the water analysis business for the past 27 years.  To prepare for his career, he studied at Baylor, where he received his bachelor of science degree in 1949, and then went on to the University of Texas at Austin for a master’s in bacteriology, completed in 1951.

At his water lab on West Sealy, Martin and his ten employees perform chemical, biological and physical analysis of various kinds of water for oil companies, farmers and others.  “Ninety percent of my work is with oil companies, including production and drilling,” he says. “Probably the next most significant amount is irrigation wells.”

The last time he counted them, 357 water injection stations for oil and gas wells all over West Texas were being quality checked on a quarterly basis by Martin’s lab.  “There’s always some amount of water coming up with oil and gas during production,” he says. “When they get concerned is when there’s a sudden change in the amount as an increase of ten percent to twenty-five percent or from eighty percent to ninety-five percent.”

According to the water expert, during the completion of a new well, the additional water can derive from any of five sources: acid water, drilling brine, frac water, load water and natural water.  Most of the water sources can be tolerated for a while; it’s the “natural water” which scares oilmen because its supply could be permanent.

“It’s extremely important to them to know which of those waters it is,”  Martin emphasizes. “If there’s little water so the well can continue to produce gas or if there’s enough oil to justify continuing to pump the water, they’ll keep pumping.  But if it’s natural water, they’ll usually abandon it and move on.”

However, the biggest problems in oil wells is not the water that comes out with the oil but the “suspended matter” that remains in the fractures in the rock and can plug up the oil sources there.  “Suspended matter” includes paraffin and asphalt particles, silt, sand, iron sulphide, iron oxide and others.

Martin says these impedimenta would be avoided entirely if the oil producer could continue to use a fresh supply of water, but after two or three years the water is being recycled and is liable to become contaminated with suspended matter.  “They have to recycle it because the Railroad Commission forbids recovered water being left on the surface,” Martin explains. “The reason is to avoid surface and aquifer contamination.”

At present, the main means of ridding water of suspended matter is “flotation”: putting it into tanks and letting the paraffin and asphalt float to the top.  It’s time-consuming and more expensive than using a continual flow of supply water, but it prevents contamination of the surface and aquifer.      

As we said earlier, the next most significant source of Martin’s employment is the agricultural sector.  Farmers and ranchers are concerned mostly about contamination from salt and septic tank seepage.  “Nine out of ten salt-contaminated wells are caused by evaporated  irrigation water,” Martin explains.  “Well water with two hundred to three hundred parts salt is considered excellent irrigation water. After irrigation, however, ninety percent of the water will evaporate, and your soil now contains ten percent of the water left with two thousand to three thousand parts salt.”

Two or three such irrigations, and the salt content in the soil will be considerable.  “Nevertheless,” Martin says, “if you’ve got good water wells, you will use up all your water before you ruin your soil, like what is happening to the Ogallala aquifer.”

The real danger is that the highly concentrated salt water will seep through the soil back into the well and ruin the water supply.  One solution to the problem, cited by Martin, is to build subsurface drainage ditches, such as are common at Barstow, where the irrigation water can seep back into the Pecos River.  “At other places, such as Dell City,” he added, “they use ‘leaching’, where you irrigate heavily enough to wash the salts down to below root level and hold it there.”

Another problem, which not only farmers and ranchers face but any home-owner with well-supplied house water, is the danger of bacterial contamination, usually caused by septic tank seepage.  “The possibility of water being contaminated by a very serious source ― such as salmonella or cholera ― is so remote that you don’t think about it in the case of stock tanks,” Martin says, “but in the case of house water you worry about it even if the chance is remote.”

When Martin determines that some farmer or rancher has house water contaminated with bacteria, he suggests sterilization.  If that doesn’t stop the problem, he suggests plugging the well with cement and digging another one.

Any new well should be dug at least one hundred feet away from the old well.  Martin says he has known of wells being contaminated from as far away as one hundred and eighty feet from the source, however.  “The trouble around here is that some of the sand and gravel is so large  the bacterial contamination can extend further than one hundred feet,” he explains.          

Waylan Martin opines that we will continue to have contamination problems with water as long as we are reliant on wells to supply it.  “What I would like to see is a canal from Montana or even Canada all the way along the slope of the Rocky Mountains into South Texas,” Martin says. “They’ve got more water up there than they know what to do with, and it’s all going into the Mississippi and into the ocean.  As long as that river is a cheap means of travel for barges, there won’t be any such canal built.  They’ve got a powerful lobby.

“But, I believe it will be built one day, when the food shortage reaches a crisis stage.  When Americans get hungry enough it will come about.  I won’t see it, but you will.”

— Monahans News, May 29, 1980

Finis

Divining Gift

SPECIAL GIFT -- Howard Collier, a Reeves/Culberson Counties Rancher, demonstrated dousing or "water-witching", as it is often called, in 1986. Collier accepted  the ability to find water with a douse as a gift.

SPECIAL GIFT — Howard Collier, a Reeves/Culberson Counties Rancher, demonstrated dousing or “water-witching”, as it is often called, in 1986. Collier accepted the ability to find water with a douse as a gift.

© 2011 Story and Photo By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

NOTE TO READERS: This feature article first appeared in the Pecos Enterprise in 1986. Shortly thereafter, it was distributed on the Associated Press wire and was published in various newspapers throughout Texas (and I do not know how much further afield). Howard Collier was 66 years old when this article and photo were published. The story he related to me below simply flowed from his lips and thus rendered it probably the easiest writing I have ever done, and the most fun. He was quite a genial man; and I treasure the brief acquaintance we shared.
     Some of you might wonder why the paragraphs are as brief as they are. Well, that is newspaper style: it is a technique for augmenting readability. And, while it is true that I have condensed previous posts, retrieved from my stash of old newspaper articles, by combining paragraphs into “literary style”, in this instance I have retained newspaper style because so much of it involves quotations. Also, I believe that here at least the old journalistic dictum “white space is good” does speed up compre-hension.

* * * * * *

PECOS, Texas — Some people search for a scientific basis for dowsing — or “water witching”, as it is often called.

But not Howard Collier of Pecos.  He just accepts it as a gift

Still, he is aware of the explanations others have come up with for people who profess to have the power to find underground water with a divining rod. “It has something to do with the magnetism in that stick and in your body and in that water vein down there that causes the stick to come down,” he said.

The 66-year-old rancher said that he learned about water-witching and that he had the gift when he was 20.

Collier was working that summer on his father’s Screwbean Ranch in northeast Culberson county.  Early one fall day, he and the foreman rode horseback to a site on the ranch where his father had built a dirt tank.

“It was the tail end of a terrible drought,” he recalled. “The soil scientists had concluded we needed to conserve soil moisture better than we had.

“So the government had come in with the Triple-A program — what’s now called the ASCS (Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service) — and part of that program was the ‘dirt works’ program. There were thousands of miles of terraces in West Texas. And they built spreader dams and dirt tanks.

“Just two weeks before, my father and I had ridden out to see it. The thing was about two hundred feet square and about ten feet deep with sloping sides. There had been some good rains and it was full. The water had backed up about a quarter mile past this dirt dam.

“But two weeks later, when Charlie Greer, the foreman, and I rode out there, there was not a drop of water. Instead, there was a hole in the middle of it where the water had slumped.”

Collier said he was shocked by the sight. “My goodness,” he told Greer, “with all this trouble, all this expense, it might be just as cheap to dig a water well.”

“Yeah,” said Greer, “but it might help if you water-witch for it first.”

“What do you mean?” said Collier, who had never heard the phrase before.

“Well, get down off your horse and let’s find us a greasewood forked limb,” Greer replied.

After cutting two forked limbs, Greer showed the young man how to hold the witching stick. Together they walked over a part of the ranch where the terrain showed promise of good water.

Suddenly Collier’s stick started pulling down toward the ground, so much that he had to use force to hold it straight in front of him.  The experience frightened him, he said.

“I could see it in your face,” Greer said. “Consider yourself lucky. That forked stick doesn’t work for everybody.”

Collier did not make much of the occasion at the time, he says now, “It was just an event in my life.”

More important was the experience of the Dust Bowl, the creation of the terraces, windmills and dirt tanks.  “As a teen-ager in the Dust Bowl days, I learned how precious water is to a rancher in West Texas,” he said. “Since that time, there’s been a lot of water wells drilled and water storage tanks and water troughs built.”

In the 1960s, Collier decided he wanted to locate windmills on his home ranch in Reeves County and irrigation wells at the ranch headquarters on Toyah Creek.  A brother-in-law, Fred Armstrong, did the engineering work, and Collier did the water-witching.

“By 1970, I’d water-witched about ten wells for us and other people,” Collier said. “Of course, that’s not many, but they all turned out to be good wells.”

Compared with some dowsers he has known, most of whom are dead now, Collier considers himself an amateur. “These old water-well drillers, they had that science,” he said. “After you told one of them about where you wanted the well and had staked it off, he’d say, ‘I’d better get a water witch,’ and he might move it over a hundred feet or more from where you had indicated.”

Every water witch prefers a certain type of wood for the forked stick.  Hackberry is a common source, Collier said, as is the peach tree. “I like greasewood,” he said.

Others forgo wood altogether, preferring metal rods. “Some people swear by brass welding rods,” Collier said.

Although most scientists dismiss any physical reality in dowsing, a few do not discount it so readily.  Zaboj V. Harvalik, a retired University of Missouri physicist, thinks it is real.  Harvalik’s experiments have indicated that a person holding a dowsing stick can detect buried electric wires, apparently because the human body is sensitive to small changes in the Earth’s magnetic field caused by the currents flowing through wires.  Since water, ores and other buried substances also affect the magnetic field, Harvalik suggests, dowsing has a physical explanation.

Still, Collier’s accounts of what a few of the “old-timers” could do tests open-minded credulity.  Collier said, “Some people could take a single stick and count the number of bobs the limb would make to the ground and, when it ceased bobbing up and down, they could tell you where to drill the well and how deep it was to water.”

— Pecos Enterprise, November 19, 1986

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