We camped by Butler Wash, west of Bluff, Utah, October 16-18, 2020. The goal was to climb on the slick rock of Comb Ridge, on the other side of the Wash.

I am amazed at how life exists even in very harsh conditions.

Although they may not be as exciting as plants, the mosses and lichens are colorful. We try to avoid walking on the cryptobiotic soil, which helps to hold the water and binds the soil together–and even make new soil.

I have been intrigued by these little potholes which contain small samples of life.

Some of the potholes are larger and support multiple species of plants. The larger ones may even have vertebrate animals living in them!

Many potholes are barren. The rock slopes down to the left in this picture; the little surviving life lives where the water lasts the longest.

It has been a long time since the last rain. We’re amazed that anything is still alive; some of the plants are barely holding on in the drought.

Even the prickly pear cactus is shriveled.

Although most of the colors are muted deserty, there are a few bright spots.

Having spread its seed, a dried yucca stands on the horizon.

There isn’t much sign of animal life; we strain to find as much as we can. Gail sees a rabbit, but it’s gone before I turn.

We debate if this comes from big horn sheep or cow,

and wonder if this is deer or sheep, but saw neither.

However, we found deer skat in one of the larger pothole gardens.

This tiny fly rested on my thumb after a lizard lunged at it, but missed.

We are amazed to see water in a series of potholes down low. Ty, our old black dog, takes a dip and a drink. is a convenient source of information. This map shows the Four Corners Region; the blue pointer aims at Bluff. Rose color is D3 (Extreme Drought) while the brown is D4 (Exceptional Drought–the driest level). Bluff is D3 while the Durango area is D4.

When I asked Jim Hook of Recapture Lodge (in Bluff) when the last rain before October 16th was, he wrote: “The last rain I recorded was on September 7 when we received 0.5 inch. September ends the water year so we ended the last 12 months with 4.57 inches of moisture. Average over the last 100 years is 7.76 inches which isn’t much but it means Bluff only received 59% of “Normal” precip. October actually is our wettest month 🙁 “

The figure above is from the article “Large contribution from anthropogenic warming to an Emerging North American megadrought” by Williams et al., Science, May 2020.

The graph shows soil moisture with the straight line being average, and the red line departure from average, by year. The yellow square on the map is the area of interest–southwest North America. Brown shading denotes the local degree of drought.

The summary of this article states: “Anthropogenic trends in temperature, relative humidity and precipitation from 31 climate models account for 47%… of the 2000-2018 drought severity….” That means that human activity is responsible for about half of the drought that we are facing.

A “megadrought” is defined as a drought lasting 20 years or longer. For comparison, the Dust Bowl of the midwest, although it was terrible, did not qualify as a megadrought. Although the duration of the current drought hasn’t reached 20 years yet, it shows no sign of relenting.

Thank you for reading. Although I have written about drought in my monthly essays, our visit to Comb Ridge made the current drought visible in a way that I wanted to share.


P.S.: While this photoessay talks about drought in an abstract way, there is an excellent article that speaks to the problems that the drought is causing people, animals and plants: I strongly recommend the video that is embedded in the article.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2020


Vote for Improvement

“The vote is precious, the most important non-violent tool we have in a democratic society, and we must use it.”           

The late Congressperson, John Lewis

            I received an unexpected call from a social worker friend whose client was pregnant and wished to have an abortion.

            The story was a sad one. The young woman had used drugs and realized that the fetus might have been harmed. She also knew that she probably would not be able to parent if she continued the pregnancy. Her 3 previous children had been taken away by social services.

            The hitch, my friend told me, was that the woman was already 23 weeks pregnant, much too late to have an abortion locally. Could I help? my friend asked.

            There are only a few places in the country where later abortions are performed safely. With the help of friends, I was able to arrange for the abortion to be paid for and done safely. The young woman did well.

            Proposition 115 on the November ballot would make it illegal to perform an abortion after 22 weeks. Currently there are only 6 other states that do not have gestational age limits. Fortunately requests for abortions after 22 weeks are very rare, and almost always due to unusual circumstances. I suspect that it took the young woman months to become sober enough to make the decision to abort.

            If this Proposition became law the only exception would be to save the life of a pregnant woman due to a physical health problem. The law would make no exception for a mental health problem, or for rape, incest or a nonfatal health problem. Please vote NO for Proposition 115.

            Reproductive health has taken a hit from the coronavirus, which makes it difficult for many people to get the care they need.  However, the problems caused by politicians have been worse and are longer-lasting than the pandemic. Soon we will have the opportunity to improve the situation when we vote in the national election on November 3rd.

            It appears to me that Mr. Trump has used religion and reproductive health issues to serve his own narcissistic needs. His past history shows little respect for women except as means to satisfy his own desires. Yet the religious conservatives have been taken in by Trump’s antiabortion stance. The religious right and Trump seem to have a pact that leaves out reproductive healthcare.

            In “Pro-life voices for Trump”, Trump brags that he has transformed the courts with antiabortion judges and extended the global gag rule to include the USA. This means that family planning clinics lose their funding if they perform or even counsel patients about abortion. The end result is there are more unintended pregnancies and more unsafe abortions. Trump hopes to fully defund Planned Parenthood and to pass a nationwide abortion ban. All of this is in opposition to the wishes of people in our country, where only about one out of 5 people wants abortion to be illegal in all circumstances.

            Another important issue will appear on the ballots in Colorado. Our electoral system to vote for the president is anachronistic. It was set up when horses were fastest means of transportation and before modern communication. Although it made sense to have the Electoral College in 1789, it is archaic and prevents truly democratic presidential elections. A vote for Proposition 113 will add Colorado to the 14 states already in the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, and bring us closer to a true democracy.

            I also support Proposition 118, the Paid Family and Medical Leave Insurance Program. If passed, it will increase benefits for people who are sick or need to care for sick family members. It is especially important for young families after giving birth or adopting a child, because it extends state and federal benefits that already exist.

            Proposition EE doesn’t have much to do with reproduction. If passed, it will increase taxes on tobacco products. The money raised will support education and other good causes. Even more important is the public health benefit, because it will induce people to quit using tobacco. Come to think of it, there is a reproductive benefit: smoking during pregnancy increases the risk of small, premature babies and of birth defects.

            To summarize, I recommend voting YES for Propositions EE, 113 and 118, but NO for Proposition 115. The people I will vote for include Diane Mitsch Bush, John Hickenlooper and—well, you can guess my favorite presidential and vice-presidential candidates.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2020