Some positives for drought.
© 1998 By Carolyn Dufurrena photo by Linda Dufurrena
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This spring, as most springs, a day came when someone said, "Hey,
did you see? The river's here." I still stop, every time I hear
this offhand exchange. It's like the first robin, the first warm
day in May when you can start thinking seriously about planting
Rivers-don't they run to the sea? Don't they flow all the
time? Don't we take that for granted? Not in Nevada. The Great
Basin traps its moisture like a birdbath. The Carson River, the
Truckee and the Walker River drain the serious runoff from the
Sierra Nevada into the center of the bowl. Farms, ranches and
wildlife still get a crack at it after the burgeoning population
of urban Nevada waters its lawns and tomato patches and casinos
pump 24-hour-a-day fountains into the 110 degree heat of summer.
Not all the rivers in the bowl drain the Sierra. The Quinn
River is small, an ephemeral stream that runs from one side of
Humboldt County to the other. It heads in the Owyhee Desert country
near the Idaho border. From this volcanic highland it snakes south
and then west around a couple of mountain ranges. It slides past
the place where I live and wanders off to sink into the Black
Rock Desert playa.
It takes about two weeks for the Quinn River to reach us when
it starts to run in the spring. All winter the channel lies empty.
Rabbits and coyotes use it for shelter from the winter winds that
sweep the flat. Its alkali mud hardens into cement and hides freshwater
clamshells smaller than your smallest fingernail. If you walk
the river bank in winter you might think they were fossils, relict
from the Pleistocene, but they are a more recent harvest, last
year's or the year before.
If the winter has been heavy, as last winter was, the river
runs. This spring it came in a big way, roaring brown foam across
the flat. It filled its channel, maybe 50 feet across, six feet
deep. It overran the banks, spreading six inches of water over
wide flanking meadows, guaranteeing rich grass, belly high, two
months later. It's back in its channel by July. By mid-August
only isolated pools of stagnant brown water remain. Alkali mud,
sticky slick and gray, records the footprints of all who pass.
By November the channel may look as though water hadn't run there
for a thousand years. The trails of deer, beaver, birds and children
harden through the winter. My father-in-law says there have been
times that the river hasn't run at all. Seven years at a stretch,
no water filled the channel.
In ranching our lives turn, on a daily basis, on water. In
a wet year, like this one, we wait weeks for haying, watching
heavy clouds. This year early rains brought a carpet of poisonous
feed, death camas and larkspur. Ground moist and soft made it
easy for the cattle to pull the poisons into their mouths, chew
them up and die slowly, kicking in the brush.
Shearing was two-and-a-half months late, the crew stuck 30
days on some other place in the snow with ewes half sheared. Sheep
waited for the shearers before they could go up into their summer
country. Branding was late too.
This summer started cool, weeds filled our gardens. Livestock
scattered into every draw and pocket. Wildflowers nobody had seen
for years grew everywhere. The desert in a wet year is unique,
a gift. We will spend the year catching up, but smiling.
Most years are not like this year. Most years we scrape for
water. There is sand in our drinking glasses by the end of July.
We search the waterholes and springs. We haul water to the sheep,
move cattle further into the high country. Dry years teach us
to wait. I remember a Spanish word, esperanza, the word for hope.
Inside it, espera, the word for wait.
One dry year we took our seven-year-old son through the high
sagebrush and snowberries, through dusty willow thickets in the
bottom of a steep canyon that usually feeds the Quinn River. That
year there was no river, and no stream to speak of feeding it.
Cattle hunkered in the brush, in the deepest shade they could
find. Their water was drying up and we had to move them higher,
toward a spring that would surely still have water.
We started late from the home ranch, one of those days that's
blistering by 7 a.m. By the time we rode out of camp, down the
canyons and gathered the cattle from the parched meadows, they
were cranky and hot, their calves stubborn and wobbly. Up the
far side, we drove them every inch of the way. Our boy was too
young for a day like this. Dad promised a cool drink at the spring.
There was nothing to do but keep going.
Dust choked, we topped the canyon, glimpsed cottonwoods in
a notch on a northfacing slope. We followed Tim into the trees.
He climbed down, and I saw him stop, turn, look up across the
pass above us. The spring was a darker blotch in the dusty soil,
a few puddles.
He said he'd take them over the top, try the spring in the
next canyon. The boy was parched, goofy with the heat and Tim
said softly, "You'd better take him back." There was nothing else
to do. We headed down the canyon, hotter now in midafternoon,
toward the pathetic little trickle that remained of the main creek.
We fought through the hot brush, sneezing. I knew it was a bad
idea, but when we got there we drank our fill of tepid, muddy
This year is a wet year. There's plenty of water for everything-man,
beast, wildlife and casino fountain. State water planners came
out this spring into the Nevada outback, meeting in the little
towns, looking for water to take to the cities. There was water
everywhere. But this year is the exception, not the rule.
Men from the water planner's advisory boards, mostly urban,
mostly from Las Vegas, assured me that their water would come
from somewhere else (probably the Virgin River, they said, or
the Colorado). I had nothing to worry about from Las Vegas. Reno,
on the other hand, could be a problem, they said. Development.
Double-wides on the floodplain. More tourism. Jethro Bodine wants
to build a Beverly Hillbillies theme park and casino in a mall
in downtown Reno. He'll need a cement pond, I'll bet.
Interbasin transfer, they said, quietly to themselves. There's
so much extra water in the West, they said. Watersheds across
the West, just full of "extra water." It reminded me of a story
I heard when I was a little girl, about the first white trappers
a Native American tribe took in. It was winter, there wasn't much
food. The white men came into the people's camp, saw the meat,
with the fat. They ate it all. Every bite.
The Quinn River is an insignificant river, flowing from noplace
to noplace else. It looks like a real river this year, but most
years it's just a little stream. Thank God.
* * *
Carolyn Dufurrena lives in Winnemucca, Nev. She is a geologist,
writer, rancher and school teacher.