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Is it global warming or is it just an extended drought? Will rain ever be a part of our Mountain West lives again? I think most of us feel certain permanent climate change is upon us, that the days of a summer rainy season and a winter marked by cleansing snows are over. Let's hope we're wrong.

During a summer in the early '90s, my kids and I played a game of racing late afternoon thunderstorms. That summer they dressed in crisp white two-piece pajamas and took Tae Kwon Do classes in a studio on the east side of town. By the time class was over every afternoon, dark thunderheads were on the rise and the air began to swish and crackle with warning. We piled into the van and as I headed toward home, my sons craned their heads to look out the back window, counting the seconds between lightning flashes and thunderclaps.

"It's coming closer!" they screamed as I navigated the rapidly darkening streets. Leaves blew from the trees. Thunder roared, temporarily blowing the music off the radio. We raced toward home, sometimes arriving just as the first fat drops of rain began to pelt the windshield. Some days we dodged hail as we ran from the car to the kitchen. Others, we were safe inside before the deluge came. Once inside, we avoided things electrical and simply watched as the storm did its business, filling the gutters with rivers of rain, making puddles in the low areas of the back yard, washing the siding of our tall, old house.

Some afternoons, after the storm, the boys walked over to Tejon Street where rivers of storm water flowed along the curb for a good hour after the storm had passed. With their friends they made boats of fallen sticks with paper sails and dropped them into the torrent. Their creations swirled and circled madly down the street toward the storm drain. My sons came home with tennis shoes drenched to the farthest inside reach of the toes, their tanned arms flecked with wet, crushed leaves, their hair matted and smelling like rain.

It was an afternoon ritual. You could depend on the appearance of afternoon rain, at least during one month of summer. It was as sure as sleep.

Yesterday I read about the natives of the Santa Ana Pueblo in central New Mexico, and how they are working to restore the bosque, the stands of tall cottonwoods bordering the Rio Grande as it snakes through their territory. A tribal elder described how the bosque was once a place where families picnicked and took walks beneath the canopy of trees. He remembered the bosque, before it was invaded by exotic plants and denuded by the narrowing, falling river channel, as a place where families went to cool off, a place to escape the bitter, dry heat of summer.

The land, it seems, can be restored to its natural state, but the water is another problem altogether. Dams upstream, the development of cities and various diversion projects have diminished the flow of the once wild river to a narrow channel that digs itself deeper into the ground each year, so far down that the groundwater no longer reaches the roots of the ancient cottonwoods. The seeds of those cottonwoods were dispersed and planted during the cyclical flooding of the Rio Grande -- a rain event that hasn't occurred now for some 40 years. Without water, the restoration plan will merely change the appearance of the forest, but it will not assure its survival and rebirth.

I also read yesterday how our federal government once again, last week, turned its collective head while the rest of the world hunkered down to hammer out details of the Kyoto Protocol, identifying measures to limit emissions that surely, scientists agree, contribute to global climate change and global warming. No one believes we can restore the ozone layer or the pattern of climates that have been forever altered, but leaders of most other nations believe it is our responsibility to try and slow the damaging effects of modern living, to stop ripping holes in the sky. Our president, meanwhile, believes he can insist that the rest of the world join us in our war on terrorism while we maintain our status as the Earth's most powerful sky warrior, belching as many tons of deadly emissions into the atmosphere as we please.

My friend the master gardener told me she's planning for permanent climate change by learning which desert plants to introduce into her garden, assuming the days of summer rains in the Mountain West are over. I haven't reached that point yet. I still wish for rain. I curse every smug weatherperson on television who gushes over how great it is to have another hot, dry day, deep into mid-November. I want to race a thunderstorm again, then retreat into the house to watch as thousands of tiny rivers wash the siding, collect in the gutters and make puddles in the dry back yard.

I want a wet place of retreat from the relentless sun and the threat of global warming.

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