Disaster, Part One: Lubbock

December 1974By Comments

The Texas Water Plan, that elaborate scheme to import water from the mouth of the Mississippi to the arid West Texas plains, is like an aging stripper. Both are patched relics of their former selves, both have by now laid claim to popular attention far longer than their ability to command it, neither has attained the measure of success they once hoped for, and neither is any longer likely to deliver what they promise, water in the one case and sex in the other. About one of those two subjects, any visitor will discover, West Texans are passionate.

The most passionate of all are the people of the High Plains, the vast, wealthy, agricultural area whose economic and geographic center is Lubbock. That agricultural wealth is based on irrigation from an immense underground reservoir called the Ogallala aquifer. That reservoir is running out. Without its water the High Plains will have to return to dry-land farming in a semi-arid area where what rainfall there is itends to come in the early spring and late fall when it is of little help to farmers. Without irrigation, yields will be smaller; farm revenues will therefore fall; and Lubbock, which has been something of a boom town in the immediate past—the 1973 unemployment rate was only two per cent and the population increased by fifteen per cent between 1960 and 1970—will become another West Texas town that once was a boom town and is now in irreversible decline.

Since the only way to avoid this economic disaster is finding a source of water to replace the Ogallala, it is very difficult to find anyone from the High Plains who doesn’t wholeheartedly favor the Water Plan. They look at the thousands of acres of luxuriant crops they grow with irrigaton—one-fifth of the United States’ cotton, one-quarter of its grain sorghum (which is fed to the regions’ one and a half million head of fed cattle), and significant amounts of wheat, corn, soybeans, and many other crops—and they come to the further conclusion that what is good for them is good for the whole world, hungry and poorly clothed as it always is. There is an undeniable truth in that argument. For a city-dweller to be indifferent to their problems is, at least in part, high-toned, urban snobbery which seems very pretentious when balanced against a simple lesson of history: no known civilization has developed without the previous establishment of a strong agricultural economy. If no farming, then no pyramids, no Renaissance, no Tristram Shandy, no rock and roll.

On the other hand, in spite of this agricultural miracle, the region still looks as flat and dry and brown as day-old toast. It is harsh, unrelenting land completely unrelieved by stream or gully or meadow or dale or forest or falling leaf or balmy zephyr. Pedro de Castaneda, who first saw the High Plains when he was a member of Coronado’s expedition, wrote in amazement, “It was all so flat that on seeing a herd of buffalo in the distance the sky was visible between their legs.” He would recognize the High Plains even today. The buffalo are gone, replaced by farmers’ fields, cotton gins, and manure-coated feed lots; but these modern additions seem as insignificant a part of the immense levelness as specks on a pane of glass. The sky above that land is just as awesome, perhaps more so since it stretches even farther into the distance. Though brilliantly colored at dusk, its vast proportions make the sky seem pressed too close to the earth, suffocatingly thick and near.

Not surprisingly this close, unending sky and flat, unending earth profoundly affects the thinking of the region’s inhabitants. “I think it’s the prettiest spot anywhere,” an elderly lady told me. She has lived in Lubbock almost from the day it was founded in 1891. “Beats me,” she said, “why anyone wants to live where trees and hills are all the time getting in the way.” A successful farmer-rancher returned from a vacation in Europe, having found the whole continent wanting: “There’s not anywhere in the whole damn place,” he railed, “that’s as good as here for raising cattle.” And a hydrologist whose office is in Lubbock pointed down at the square fields and straight rows of cotton and corn from the seat of his Cessna. “I just like it,” he said, “the way it’s all worked out so neat. I don’t know. I guess it satisfies the engineer in me.”

Lubbock, the economic center of all that neat farmland, has a corresponding levelness and sameness. Right across the street from my motel was the Texas Tech football stadium, an immense grey concrete building which dwarfs everything around it for miles, including the adjoining Tech campus crouched forever in the stadium’s mighty shadow. That stadium is the emotional center of the whole High Plains, more important even than Lubbock’s many churches. This is not because the church is lightly regarded in comparison to football, quite the opposite in fact; but there are many churches, which fractionalizes religious energy, and there is only that one huge stadium which unites and amplifies that emotional energy. And the two are inevitably confused. The local paper’s sports cartoonist is in the habit of drawing Tech coach Jim Carlen with a halo, and, until only recently, Sunday church and a Tech football game were the two places a respectable male citizen would never go without a coat and tie. Around the stadium, looking for all the world like little spores, are countless franchise food outlets selling Tacos, Chicken, Burgers, and Shakes in quantities that must far exceed the wildest dreams of the earliest pioneers.

The rest of Lubbock is unexceptional to plain ugly, all in the very same way. (I saw only two exceptions: the high school, a low, rambling building of brown brick with many seperate wings that is surely one of the prettiest school buildings anywhere; the other was the cotton seed mill, the largest in the world, on the southeast edge of town, which is ugly too, but ugly in its own way, with its immense corrugated bins and mountain-sized cones of cotton seed standing in the sun during the day and glowing a ghostly luminous white and silver under lights at night.) Otherwise the houses are on perfectly square blocks with the east-west streets numbered and the north-south streets lettered. These streets are virtually treeless and the houses, with few exceptions, are small bungalows all of which, in retrospect, seem to have been either white and/or brick. Even the exclusive residential areas offer no real change in atmosphere. There aren’t enough trees there to make any real difference. The sun beats as unmercifully as anywhere else; no terraces relieve the boredom of the landscape; and in the spring, when the countless farmers’ fields lie bare ready for planting, the wind rolls across the plains carrying tons of fine dust which blows across the rich and poor alike. It becomes impossible to walk the streets of Lubbock without dirt filling the eyes and clinging to the skin like a clammy, filthy coat. After one storm the rain gauge at nearby Reese Air Force Base was filled with three and a half inches of fine sand. A lifelong resident told me she used her windshield wipers as much against dust as against rain.

It rarely rains in either Lubbock or the High Plains: compare its average 18 inches to the 55 inches Texans living aling the sabine can expect. Yet farmers have been tilling the High Plain for almost 100 years in spite of the niggardly rainfall, and only during the last 40 years has there been any significant irrigation.

It was never a secret that twenty to a hundred feet below the ground the Ogallala held vast amounts of cool, clear water. Irrigation was an idea that naturally came to many minds, but until the middle Thirties there were no pumps efficient, economical, and reliable enough to use for widespread irrigation. The first farmers and ranchers tapped the Ogallala only with windmills which could provide sufficient water for stock, household use, and perhaps even for a few rows of a vegetable garden, but not enough for anything more ambitious. When pumps became technically improved and economical, wells began sprouting like weeds. In 1934, 35,000 acres were being irrigated in the High Plains; by 1940 the acreage had increased to 250,000.

Although this expansion slowed almost to a stop during World War II because of shortages of pipe, it resumed with a vengeance once the war was over. Donald E. Green, in his authoritative Land of the Underground Rain, says that the greatest expansion was between 1950 and 1954, when the number of irrigated acres rose to 3 1/2 million, primarily in cotton and grain sorghum. The rise has been more or less steady since then and is not completely over even yet, though the annual increase now is much slower. By 1973, 5,941,000 acres were under irrigation in the High Plains. That year a Texas A&M University report said, without allowing itself the least hint of sentimental wistfulness, that “an additional 236,000 acres in the area can be irrigated.” In other words. though expansion will likely continue, the great rush is over.

But even if the available land had been endless, that rush would still be dwindling nevertheless. There are still some mossback farmers in the region who will tell you that the Ogallala aquifer will never run dry. “Fills back up when it rains,” a terse cotton farmer from Floyd County said. But those poor souls are clinging to an illusion that in slightly different form was widely believed even as late as the Fourties—that the Ogallala was inexhaustible because it was actually an underground river. Its source was supposedly either melting snows in the Rockies or melting glaciers in Canada.

Unfortunatle neither theory is true. The water comes from millions of years of High Plains rain and snow seeping very slowly down to the Ogallala’s “red bed,” a layer of impermeable rock. The water has remained trapped over the eons for the simple reason that it had nowhere else to go. The Canadian River bed seals off the formation in the North, the Pecos River seals it in the West and South, and the Cap Rock escarpment (a sudden rise in the land, thus the High Plains) seals it in the East. These geological features, although they are responsible for the water’s being there in the first place, also prevent the recharge of the Ogallala from any but its original source, the slow percolation of water through the soil. Since most of the soil in the High Plains is not very porous, this recharge averages only one tenth of an inch a year. Yet the water is being pumped out at an average of 2 1/2 feet a year and in some counties many times that fast. Obviously with situation—which geologists call an “overdraft (how appropriate that the metaphor is financial)—is going to cause the eventual depletion of the aquifer. In some places where the red bed was close to the surface and the Ogallala was therefore thin, the water is already used up; in regions where the formation is thicker it may last for another ten, twenty, perhaps in certain especially fortunate areas, even fifty years. But one day, and for most farmers a not-all-that-distant day, it will all be gone.

Nothing could have prevented the Ogallala from declining, but there is no excuse for its declining so fast. Not until 1951, when High Plains Water Conservation District #1 was organized, did people in the High Plains make any significant attempt to conserve what water there was.* The district was established according to a law passed in 1949, the first law in Texas to deal with groundwater—that is, underground water—conservation. Texas law has always held that groundwater is the sole property of the person who owns the land above it and can be used, or misused, as he desires. West Texas farmers cherished this right with the same fierceness they cherish the Old Testament. When urban organizations, among them the Lubbock Chamber of Commerce, began to worry that irrigation was threatening their municipal and industrial water supply, the farmers formed powerful organizations to oppose any legislation regulating groundwater. They claimed such laws infringed on their inalienable rights as landowners, compared themselves to Carthaginians under seige by Rome, and denounced the sponsors of such laws as communists. Green quotes a 1947 editorial in the Southwestern Crop and Stock as indicative: “When irrigation is no longer profitable, the farmer will no longer depend upon it to grow his crops. The ‘hands-off’ free-enterprise system still works and will always be preferred in West Texas to socialistic grounds.”

Nevertheless, in 1948 the region’s legislators reported to their constituents that feeling for control was running strong enough in Austin that the farmers has best come up with some plan of their own. Eventually the compromise bill of 1949 was worked out. It reaffirmed the landowners’ ownership of groundwater, but allowed for establishing water districts with the power to regulate the spacing of wells and to obtain court injunctions to prevent wasting water. They have no power to compel the conservation of water. They do, however, try to educate and convince; these efforts are becoming increasingly successful. Today, Frank Raynor, the district’s wise and energetic manager, can fly over the land in the district’s jurisdiction and point to farm after farm using improved irrigation techniques. Therefore, he argues, and not without certain logic, local control of the water is better than state or national control. But that is not the point. All this has come too late, and it has only been since the water problem became so evident it could no longer be ignored that very many farmers began doing much about it. Although the 1949 law gave the district certain power over the amount of water a farmer could withdraw, it was not until 1969 that any of the three districts chose to exercise that right.

“The ‘hands-off’ free-enterprise system still works and will always be preferred in West Texas to socialistic controls.” If only people in the High Plains really believed all that. What really happened back then when times were good was they bet on the wrong horse by refusing any measure that would control their withdrawal of water, and that horse lost the race. The water is running out. Then they made, and are continuing to make, the classic gambler’s mistake of trying to recoup their losses by betting even more on a longshot—The Water Plan—that has even less chance of winning. Those same people who were arguing against government encroachment on their rights are now pleading with the government to interfere with their rights, and the rights of everybody else in Texas and Louisiana, to the tune of $20 billion and a 1400-mile ditch across both states. “We’ll go broke without that water,” they claim. But isn’t that the way the hands-off system of free enterprise works?

In his speech to Congress last October 8, President Ford outlined his proposals against inflation and began with a discussion of food and energy. He encouraged farmers to produce as much as they possibly could and assured them that he would do whatever he could to make available all the fuel, fertilizer, and other supplies they might need for full production. This echoed a speech he made before the General Assembly of the United Nations on September 18. He spoke directly to the “oil producing nations,” warning them that charging exorbitant prices was not in their long-run unterests. He mentioned the world food crisis and then added that, although we were the greatest food producing nation on earth, we would “never play politics with food.” That would be fine if that weren’t, just then, exact;y what he was doing.

Both speeches are remarkable, if for no other reason than for the irony that after more than 100 years of rapid industrialization we should suddenly discover ourselves in a world where our greatest economic power lies in our agriculture.

Right now the world is enduring a food crisis. There’s only a month’s supply of grain in storage and that amount is not likely to be increased very much with this year’s harvest. This means that next year, and each succeeding year for no one knows how ling, the supply of food will be dependent on the vagaries of the weather. With such short supplies, many countries will be forced to buy food on the world market. American agricultural procucts (since we are capable, with a little luck, of producing far beyond our own needs) should make up much of that market. President Ford and his economic advisers are counting on such an agricultural surplus as one way of ending our balance-of-payments deficit. There is, therefore, an economic climate that favors any project which promises to increase, or at least maintain, agricultural production.

Just this last April Governor Briscoe, not always as slow to spot trends as it might appear, claimed that importing water was essential if Texas was to do its part in reversing the balance-of-payents deficit by exporting agricultural products. He repeated that he considers the plan top priority. The Speaker-apparent of the House, Billy Clayton, is all for it. All of West Texas is for it. Governor Edwards of Louisiana is for it. It is, for lack of any other, the official water policy of the state of Texas. And although in 1969 the people of Texas defeated a constitutional amendment that would have permitted the sale of $3 1/2 billion worth of bonds to get the thing going, there remains a definite chance that such powerful backers will be able to get it built.

They need federal money to do it. The main obstacle is a June 1973 report of the U.S. Bureau of Reclaimation that says the Water Plan is economically unwarranted because the cost would outweigh the benefits. The report also states that while the Mississippi water would cost Plains farmers $125 an acre (enough water to cover one acre a foot deep), the farmers could only pay $33.50 at most and still farm profitably. Furthermore, as the report points out, a thorough study of the environmental effects of the plan has never been made, although a 1400-mile backward-running river is certain to change such things as the weather, the water shed, the migratory and feeding habits of wildlife, and the look of things. Whatever those changes are, they will be irreversible if the river is built.

West Texans argue that the Bureau measured only the primary economic benefits of the plan (increased revenues to farmers) and did not measure the secondary benefits (warehousing, shipping, processing, packing, etc.) which, if taken into account, are enough to make the plan justified economically. They also have the figures to show that farmers could pay the $125 an acre foot for the water, although this is based on an assumption that farm prces will continue to rise drastically in the future.

Basically one believes the set of economic projections he wants to believe since there are reasonable people arguing both sides. The sad thing is that West Texans—duly impressed with the magnitude of their agriculture—are still placing all their political energy into a plan that reasonable men can oppose. They are bewildered that some people would balk at spending $20 billion of public money on something that maybe if it works right will benefit their little corner of the world. And their insistance that the world needs what they produce, while tru. is not the same thing as saying that the world needs a ditch across Texas.

The very bigness of the project has West Texans mesmerized. It is the main element in their only hopeful vision of the future, a vision they follow as blindly as Coronado followed his vision across those same plains. And yet, in agricultural stations right outside Lubbock, experimenters using sophisticated irrigation techniques have grown highly productive cotton using only seven or eight inches of water. This is less than half of the area’s annual rainfall. Since the soil is not porous, most of that rainfall stays on the surface where it collects in small depressions called playa lakes. There’s about one of these lakes per square mile. Many farmers, as their groudnwater resources have declined, have begun using playa-lake water for irrigation. They do not, today, provide nearly the amount of water a farmer needs; but in time, with scientific and technological advances in irrigation and with better techiques of trapping and preserving rainfall, the High Plains might be saved without importing Mississippi water. This is hardly certain. But it would, for one thing, not cost $20 billion to try and would not threaten to disrupt the rest of the state in the bargain.

Nevertheless, no one up there is very enthusiastic about those possibilities. The Plan has a death grip on their imagination and energy. What if it doesn’t get built? West Texans shrug shoulders at the question. They are like the ancient Byzantines who, when their city was surrounded, sat by the thousands in the cathedrals praying for deliverance. They were not delivered.

*The historical information in this and the following paragraphs is also based on Green’s Land of the Underground Rain.


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