Red Lake dries up in drought conditions

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, July 5, 2012

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A nyone who has been to the Navajo, N.M., area of the reservation lately can readily see that drought conditions this summer are among the worst in the last five decades.

Red Lake, once brimming with water, is now completely dry, looking a lot like people imagine the surface of the moon to look like. Chapter officials say they have never seen the lake in this condition in their lifetime.

But that is not unique. Chapters all over the reservation are reporting that lakes are way down and some chapters, like Mexican Water, have declared a drought emergency or are in the planning stages of doing so.

Sherrick Roanhorse, chief of staff for President Ben Shelly, said the president's office is looking at issuing a reservation-wide drought emergency, which would pave the way for the tribe to seek federal funds for relief efforts.

Navajo Nation officials have been comparing the situation that the tribe finds itself in this year to 2002 when drought conditions forced ranchers and livestock owners to sell off livestock because there wasn't enough grass and water.

Jason John, a senior official with the Water Management Department, said while 2002 was "pretty bad," the years since then have been up and down as far as rainfall and condition of the rangeland are concerned.

Since 2002, the reservation has been fortunate that dry summers have mostly been preceded by relatively wet winters, which provided for some runoff from the mountains.

But this past winter was also mild and as a result there has been no runoff, which is why, said John, you are seeing lakes dry up or water levels going down.

"The drought is pretty extensive throughout the Southwest," he said, and conditions on the Navajo Reservation are no different than other areas.

The U.S. Drought Monitor, which surveys conditions around the United States, reported last week that 93 percent of the topsoil in New Mexico and 87 percent in Arizona was rated as short or very short of moisture.

As far as rangeland conditions, 72 percent of the rangeland in Arizona and 90 percent in New Mexico was rated as poor or very poor.

The same is true here on the Navajo Reservation, said John, with livestock owners reporting that there isn't enough grass and water to support the number of livestock that they have permits to graze.

As a result, more and more ranchers are being forced to purchase hay and haul water to keep their animals alive.

"People need to look at supplementing their livestock's water and grass if they don't want to reduce their herds," John said.

But it is not only the animals that are suffering.

Emergency Management officials say they are getting more requests from chapters throughout the reservation asking for the tribe's help to pay the cost of hauling water for families who don't have the resources to do it on their own.

John said communities like Cameron and Lower Greasewood are finding out that the shallow ground water that the communities have been using are drying up and residents are having to travel further and further to get the water they need.

It's been especially hard this summer for the chapters between Lower Greasewood and Dilkon who in the past relied on heavy snowfall in the winter to provide enough runoff, said John.

The big question, however, is how much longer the drought conditions will last.

The good news is that it appears that the reservation is on the brink of its annual monsoon season.

Accuweather, one of the nation's most reliable weather forecasting systems, is predicting rain for 14 of the next 24 days and that rainfall in August will be about average if not a little bit better than average.

The bad news is that the conditions the reservation is facing this year may become more normal in the future.

A new book coming out later this summer called "Assessment of Climate Change in the Southwest United States" is predicting worse times ahead. This was brought out last week at a climate summit in Tucson that was attended by representatives of several tribes, including the Hopi and the San Carlos Apache.

One section of the book deals with the affects of climate change on Native peoples.

"Native American lands, people and culture are likely to be disproportionately affected by climate change," the book states. "Effects are likely to be greater than elsewhere because of endangered cultural practices, limited water rights, economic and political marginalization - all of which are relatively common among indigenous people."

In other words, Native peoples won't have the political power that non-Natives have to get government support for programs that will bring some relief from the drought.

However, the main point of the summit and the book seems to be that any type of climate change - even if drought conditions are more prevalent than they are now - can be overcome to some extent if one can adapt to the changes.

It was brought out by tribal leaders at the summit that Native American people have been adapting to changing conditions for the past 1,000 years.

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