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March 02, 2004
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I was teaching a class the other day, and the topic of rain came up. We were, at that moment, looking out the window at a torrential downpour splashing on cars and creating big puddles, so it wasn't too surprising that water would be on everybody's mind. What was surprising to me, though, was the comment someone made to the effect that this meant there was no more drought. As if our water problems were solved by a few days of precipitation! Hmm, if that were the case, we'd all be in great shape, wouldn't we!

But the fact is - even a couple of inches of rainfall won't make much difference in our water situation. Figure it this way - on average, we get four and a quarter inches of rainfall each year. Between straightforward evaporation and the amount of moisture that plants lose, we give up 82 inches in a year. So every year we're down 78 inches. An extra two inches won't make up for that.

And, just in case that weren't drastic enough, think of poor Lake Mead - the source of almost all our water for drinking, showering, car washing. (Let me just point out that in other places, a drought means at least restricted car washing, but I digress...) Lake Mead is down by something like 75 feet. That's nearly the height of a seven story building. A couple of days of rain won't do much to solve the problem. What will really make a difference will be a walloping big amount of snowfall putting water into the Colorado river. And not wasting what we have.

This might sound like I'm dismissing the rain, as if it didn't have any benefit. That's not what I'm saying at all. For one thing, I like to think that a heavy downpour scrubs away the dust and smog from the air. When we get a sustained precipitation, our landscape plants get deep watering, which is the best kind. A lot of people irrigate too often, but for an insufficient length of time. The result is that a lot of the water just evaporates before it does much good. So rain can substitute for a good, deep irrigation.

A lot of our Mojave wildflowers respond wonderfully well to the occasional big rainfall. Last week, I was out in Death Valley taking some company from the East Coast out to see the desert. Since I was being a tourist myself, I was driving relatively slowly. A friend who knows these things had already told me - we were going out too early to see any of the fabled Mojave wildflowers, so I had no hopes in that regard.

But as we were moving along, amazed at the rocks and the sand and the sky, out the corner of my eye, I started to see some different color! I slowed down some more and saw bright yellow desert sunflowers! These're about 7 inches tall, as opposed to garden sunflowers, which approach 6 feet, but vivid, fluorescent yellow. We got out of the car, took some pictures, and kept driving, but this time we're driving even slower. And indeed, next we saw low growing white and green. So I stopped the car and started looking at these little primroses and some other tiny white flowers. None of these plants were bigger than 2 inches across and maybe that tall, so you can imagine how small the flowers were, but there were a lot of them.

Well, as we were standing by the roadside taking pictures of these cute little dickenses, a park ranger came up and started talking to us. In the course of the conversation, she mentioned that the flowers were appearing much earlier than usual. She said that they'd had some rain back in November and the effect was to bring out more of the wildflowers, and earlier than in other years. The flowers in Death Valley are adapted to a region with an average yearly rainfall of an inch and a half. They don't just respond to a little extra water; they explode with delight!

Maybe our rainfall will mean that the wildflowers in places like Red Rock Canyon will also be spectacularly lovely this year. Not that I'm encouraging everyone to go and be astounded by Nevada's natural beauty, but if you're going to be out and about in some of our wild places, drive a little slower, and prepare to be impressed.

Speaking of impressive, the Spring Bulb and Flower Show will be happening on March 13 at the Garden Club Center at Lorenzi Park in Las Vegas. You can be sure there'll be something you'll love, and maybe you have something you'd like to enter. You can call the Master Gardener Help line for information. For KNPR's Desert Bloom, with my umbrella ready, this is Dr. Angela O'Callaghan of the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.

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