Our nation’s first man in space

July 20, 2009

Our first man in space got there by a route most people can’t guess:  Balloon.

Joe Kittinger recounted his adventures to the CBS Morning Show, how he leaped from a balloon at the edge of space for the Air Force, to prove that humans could survive a fall from such distances, in the event of an emergency that required an astronaut to bail out.

Kittinger bailed out of the balloon at over 102,000 feet, nearly three times the height of Mt. Everest into the atmosphere.

But Elton John never wrote a song about “Balloon Man.”

News flash: Texas has a second natural lake!

July 20, 2009

Years ago, in Virginia, I had learned that Virginia had only one natural lake, the Great Dismal Swamp.  Accompanying that chunk of information in that lecture was that Texas had only two natural lakes.

But upon arriving in Texas, I could find reference to only one natural lake, Caddo, and it had ceased being fully natural when its maintenance fell to a dam.

What happened to Texas’s second natural lake?

A Google search right now on “Texas +’natural lake'” produces ten listings on the first page, all of them pointing to the fact that Texas has just one natural lake.  Here are the first five:

I have found a second natural lake in Texas. It’s not a new discovery at all — it’s just a case of people not having the facts, and overlooking how to find the truth.  It’s especially difficult when the lake hides itself.

Our testing coordinator at Molina High School, Brad Wachsmann, spins yarns that belie his youth.  In the middle of one yarn last year, corroborated by other yarns, he mentioned that he has family in Big Lake, Texas; and he described visiting and having relatives urge people to run out and see the lake since it’s rebirth in torrential rains.

“A second natural lake in Texas?” I asked.  Wachsmann knew the drill.  Yes, Big Lake is a natural lake in Texas, and yes, people forget about it.

Texas teachers, listen to your testing coordinators, okay?

All of this came to mind reading the Austin American-Statesman, still a bastion of great journalism despite problems in the newspaper industry.  On Monday, July 7, the paper ran a story and an editorial about the clean up of the oil industry refuse that killed the shoreline of part of the lake; the springs that once fed the lake have mostly gone dry, but that’s likely due to agricultural water mining.

It’s a story of boom and bust, environmental degradation for profit, and eventual recovery we hope.

Looking at the landscape that surrounds the Reagan County seat, you wonder whether the name Big Lake was somebody’s idea of joke. It’s dry and dusty, where the flora sprouts reluctantly and lives precariously.

Yet, the West Texas town of Big Lake got its name from a natural lake that was fed by springs that have long since gone dry. While the area may not fit everyone’s definition of photogenic, it has its own brand of charm – charm that could be enhanced if the damage done to the fragile ecosystem by salt spills were reversed or even minimized.

As the American-Statesman’s Ralph K.M. Haurwitz reported in Monday’s editions, the University of Texas and Texas A&M systems have benefited from the $4.4 billion in royalty payments and mineral income produced by its West Texas acreage since Santa Rita No. 1 well came in on May 28, 1923.

The salt water byproduct of oil and natural gas production, however, contaminated 11 square miles near Big Lake, killing most everything that grows. The lack of vegetation allows wind and water erosion.

Hey, it gets better.  This is real Texas history, real American history — you can’t make this stuff up.  Haurwitz’s article talks about the heritage of Texas education.   Remember that old story about setting aside certain sections of townships to help fund education in lands on the American frontier?  Texas wasn’t a public lands state as farther west, but it still reserved sections of land for the benefit of education.

Rose petals blessed by a priest?  I’ll wager the priest didn’t make the trip to the top of the derrick.  Haurwitz wrote:

BIG LAKE — Investors appealed to the patron saint of impossible causes when oil drilling began on University of Texas System land in 1921. It didn’t hurt.

Santa Rita No. 1 blew in on May 28, 1923, after rose petals blessed by a priest were scattered from the top of the derrick at the behest of some Catholic women in New York who had purchased shares in the Texon Oil and Land Co., which drilled that first well.

Since then, the UT System’s 2.1 million acres in West Texas have produced $4.4 billion in royalty payments and other mineral income for the Permanent University Fund, an endowment that supports the UT and Texas A&M University systems.

But this long-running bonanza for higher education exacted a price from the remote, semiarid landscape where it all began. Millions of barrels of salt water, a byproduct of oil and natural gas production, contaminated 11 square miles, or more than 7,000 acres, killing virtually all vegetation and leaving the land vulnerable to wind and water erosion. Hundreds of mesquite stumps with three feet of exposed roots testify to the dramatic loss of topsoil.

Texas, and Big Lake - from BigLakeTx.com

Where in Texas is Big Lake?

The town of Big Lake is just north of the lake itself, on State Highway 137 running north and south, and U.S. Highway 67 running east and west, approximately 65 miles west of San Angelo.   Big Lake sits about 10 miles north of Interstate 10, and about 75 miles south of Interstate 20.  Big Lake calls itself “the gateway to the Permian Basin.”

Big Lake is the home of Reagan County High School.  Jim Morris was baseball coach for the Reagan High Owls when his team persuaded him to try out for a major league baseball team.  His story was chronicled, with some artistic license, in the Disney movie “Rookie.”

Land managers are working to stop erosion on the often-dry shores of Big Lake using any trick they can find.  One trick:  Plant salt grass.

Salt grass?  Along Texas’s Gulf Coast, there are a few species of grass that, while not halophytes, are at least salt tolerant.  Salt grass.  This grass made it profitable to graze cattle on what would otherwise have been unproductive land in the Texas cattle boom.  This role in Texas history is memorialized in the Salt Grass Steakhouse chain, now found in five states.

And if planting salt grass works to control erosion, it will help clean up a large part of Texas other natural lake, Big Lake.

Big Lake’s being wet or dry is a whim of local climate.  You could say that half of all of Texas’s natural lakes are now dry as a result of continued warming; you could say that two good gully-washers or toad-stranglers could restore water to half of Texas’s natural lakes.

Big Lake Playa, from NightOwl Bakery and Roastery in Big Lake, Texas

Field crew meeting at the outset of the 1992 excavations at the Big Lake Bison Kill site. The dry bed of Big Lake stretches for miles in the background. Big Lake is an intermittent saline lake or playa, an uncommon landform on the Edwards Plateau. Photo by Larry Riemenschneider, Concho Valley Archeological Society.

More details about Big Lake and prehistory, below the fold.

Read the rest of this entry »

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