The War for the Colorado

From the West Texas Caprock to Matagorda Bay, a drought-prone river triggers animosities and provokes battles over its life-sustaining waters. Downstream and upstream interests loathe each other, farmers fear losing out to cities, and everyone is united against raiders from faraway San Antonio and Corpus Christi.

The Colorado river begins as a series of subtle draws that extend like fingers into the edge of the Panhandle, interrupting its flatness. The draws, formed by the relentless action of storm runoff seeking lower elevations, funnel water over the Caprock and down into the West Texas plains. In Dawson County, just north of Lamesa, one of these formations contains a small spring that has run continuously for as long as anyone can remember. This spring is usually described as the headwaters of the Colorado River. When I went to see it, I thought of Bolero, Ravel’s eighteen-minute crescendo: That piece of music starts out so softly that you can barely hear it, and the Colorado also begins as a whisper. The spring appears from behind swaths of grass in a modest little trickle about one foot wide. From there the water sets off gamely toward the east, disappearing into a long line of small mesquite trees that are the first to drink from it.

It is hard to imagine that this meek flow could ever amount to much, but like Bolero, the Colorado builds steadily in volume—and the bigger it gets, the more its waters will be coveted, schemed over, and fought for. During its journey of nearly nine hundred miles, dusty West Texas towns drink from it, pecan and peanut farmers irrigate with it, Austin’s microchip factories rely on it, and coastal rice farmers use it to flood their fields. Matagorda Bay shrimpers and sport-fishing charters catch only what the river helps sustain. Not every community is fortunate enough to be situated near a large river, however, and not every river is as productive as the Colorado. As the recent drought has made all too plain, many cities and towns in Texas have ballooned in population without assuring themselves of a future water supply. The result is a rash of deals and fights between those who have a lot of water and those who don’t have enough.

Water wars are as old as the river, but today the weapons of choice are lobbyists, lawsuits, and money. For the past three years officials of Corpus Christi have watched the levels of the city’s two reservoirs sink lower and lower, to the point where emergency rationing may be needed. They are willing to pay $15.8 million to pump from the Colorado—a sum that others who rely on the river are neither willing nor able to match. San Antonio has also inquired about Colorado water. If desperate urban areas start bidding up the price of water, will there still be pecan farmers in San Saba and rice farmers in Matagorda County?

In a mostly thirsty land, the passions that such questions stir

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