Life By the Drop: How to Report on the Drought

KUT's Terrence Henry and Mose Buchele discuss the stories behind their research and reporting on the drought. 

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For the July issue of TEXAS MONTHLY, the magazine partnered with StateImpact Texas and KUT News to examine how the state can balance a growing population and a shrinking water supply. StateImpact reporters Mose Buchele and Terrence Henry talk about their work on the series.

Where around the state did this series take you?
Terrence Henry: We took went to several places along the Colorado River, starting in West Texas and finally ending at Matagorda Bay, where the river meets the Gulf. While the Colorado no longer flows from one end of the state to the next, it’s fascinating because this one river can tell you so many stories of the drought and illuminate the water issues Texas is facing. Robert Lee, a small town of a thousand people on the Upper Colorado, had their reservoir run dry and they had to build a pipeline to bring in more water. So we went out there, and down to the rice farmers in Bay City, who had their water cut off for the first time this year, and finally to Matagorda Bay, to see the environmental impact of the drought on the Gulf.

Mose Buchele: I live a few blocks from Lady Bird Lake in Austin, and one of the unexpected outcomes of working on this series was how it changed the way I thought about the water just a short walk from my front door. When I went to Wharton County to visit a rice farm, or rode a fishing boat in Matagorda Bay, I’d feel an eerie sense connection to my surroundings. It was the realization that the water I was seeing was the same water that flows right by my house. Probably the biggest kick was Matagorda County, where the Colorado meets the Gulf. Jerry West, our contact down there, took me and our photographer Filipa Rodrigues to the exact spot where the river flows into the bay. Saw some pretty big fish!

In one part of the program, TEXAS MONTHLY‘s Nate Blakeslee says that while the state’s population is increasingly concentrated in urban areas, we’re still a rural state in terms of water planning because over half the water used goes to agriculture. In the longer term, how will a drier Texas impact agriculture?
TH: It’s certainly a concern for many of the ranchers and farmers you talk to. Compounding the issue is a generational shift taking place, where the newer generation is choosing the city life, I guess you could say, over farming. So you have third- and fourth-generation ranching and farming families whose kids have decided not to take over. And when they sold off their herds last year, or lost their crop completely, that discouraged the younger generation from going into agriculture even more. 

But there are encouraging signs as well. Neal Newsom is a High Plains farmer, he’s in this issue of TEXAS MONTHLY and was part of one of our earlier reports on the drought. His family has always grown cotton. But a while back he started experimenting with grapes, which need less water, and he’s had real success. And now Texas AgriLife Extension is holding workshops for farmers on how to switch from cotton to wine grapes. Then there’s an outfit called Village Farms, which builds and runs massive greenhouses of tomatoes in West Texas. I just went out to their newest facility outside of Midland, and it’s pretty amazing what they’re doing out there in the desert. With no soil and 87 percent less water use than field farming, this one company now grows most of Texas’ tomatoes.

So maybe we don’t have to be fearful that agriculture in West Texas and the Panhandle will disappear, but perhaps it’s going to shrink some while becoming more innovative. And how the culture behind agriculture will change will be a fascinating thing to watch.

MB: I think one of the things that all the different interests agree on is that conservation and greater efficiency will be key components to the future of Texas water use and Texas agriculture. Water is relatively cheap right now in Texas, but it won’t be forever. When it is not, all consumers-–including farmers-–will be looking for new ways of conserving.

I also know that many farmers and ranchers worry that the state will gradually lose its remaining family farms and ranches and move to a more centralized “factory farming” type of system. That’s a process that some say has already been jump-started by the drought, when a lot of the older generation of farmers and ranchers hung up their hats for good.

Have the rice farmers in Matagorda County been discussing switching to crops that are less water intensive?
TH: Some of the rice farmers do grow other crops on a small scale. And if you drive down there, you’ll see palm tree farms and turf grass growers. But mostly they’ll say that they’ve been doing this over a hundred years, and the soil has a lot of clay in it, and it’s always been “their” water, so that’s why they grow rice.

But they also seem resigned to the fact that their interruptible rights are going to be interrupted more and more. So they’re looking at rice strains that use less water, and laser-leveling their fields, which can decrease their water use. And they’re really hoping that this plan to build smaller, downstream reservoirs will come together.

MB: Some rice farmers argue that the land in that part of Texas isn’t particularly good for farming anything else profitably. I’m sure others might disagree. One thing is for certain, rice farming is some of the most water-intensive farming that exists. If we reach a time when the water is not there for Texas rice farming that land will either be put to another use or it will return to prairieland.

What was the most surprising thing you learned while working on this series?
TH: Living in the city, I think it’s difficult to really know what this drought did to people. Just the idea that your small town is weeks away from running out of water. What’s that like? Austin doesn’t have that concern. And I think you can hear the strain, the weariness when you talk to these people. Having to sell off your herd at a lower price than you want, then a year later it cost too much to buy back in. John Jacobs, the mayor of Robert Lee, says he worries that the planning for future water needs in Texas will be done at the expense of the rural populations. That policy will be made in the big, fast-growing cities, and towns like his, of just a thousand people, can simply move overnight if water runs dry. So it’s been eye-opening to visit those communities and hear firsthand what this drought was like on the front lines.

MB: When we think about drought, we immediately think of how it dries the land, that’s what appealed to me about reporting on drought from a boat on the Texas Coast. It was counter-intuitive. A TPWD scientist told me that up possibly to 98 percent of the species that live in the world’s ocean start part of their life cycle in a bay. If that’s even remotely true, it speaks to the importance of keeping a healthy global bay system.

In the magazine, Terrence, you’re quoted as saying that rather than being swift and intense like a hurricane or flood, a drought is like a “slow death.” How long do you think it will take before we understand the extent of this drought’s damage?
TH: Well, it’s possible that there could be additional agricultural losses. Last August, they had them at a little over five billion dollars. And then a few months back they were increased to 7.62 billion. That’s nearly twice as much as the previous record. And for the parts of West Texas that didn’t get much of a wet winter, I’d expect there to be more.  

This series does a great job of showing how drought is part of Texas’ history and heritage. But with business and population growing, drought has different impact now. And this series asks the question, “Do we have enough water for everyone?”

So another answer to your question would be, I think it depends on how we learn from this drought. You’ll hear this from water planners-–that they worry the drought regressed too quickly and too soon for any real political momentum to fund changes to our water infrastructure.

And I think that’s an interesting question that Nate Blakeslee gets at in his piece about the water plan. What if this happens again in a year or two? What if instead of a record single-year drought, we have a record three- or four-year drought? The water plan talks about the massive cost of not doing anything, and I think it will be interesting to see what happens at the upcoming legislative session. Because if more droughts like this aren’t planned for, I’d say that could be the biggest cost of this drought. The cost of a missed opportunity.

MB: Think of it this way. We spend a fair amount of time this series looking at the drought of the 1950s. Around sixty years later and we’re still exploring the impact of that crisis. With that in mind I wouldn’t be surprised if we were still feeling the impact of the 2011 drought decades from now. Unless a worse drought comes along…

Do you think Texas is moving towards more of a desert-like climate in the future?
TH: I think for a lot of Texans last summer, they felt like they might as well live in Phoenix. But whether or not Texas turns into a desert, I think that our habits will change. Michael Webber, the professor who leads an energy innovation group at the University of Texas, says one day we’ll look back and ask why we were throwing diamonds on our lawns. The idea being that water will be much, much more valuable-–and valued-–than it is now.

MB: At the height of the drought last summer signs started popping up around East Austin that depicted a burning sun over a landscape of sand and heat. The captions read “Coming Soon, a Vast Desert!” I told John Neilson Gammon, the state climatologist, about those signs. He said “I’d love to know whether a caveman living 7,000 years ago in North Africa had written the same graffiti. Because that person would have been right!” But to answer your question: Yes.

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