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 are not reasonable ones. Water carves fantastic whorls in limestone riverbeds, but the work it does on the imaginations of people living in arid parts is even more spectacular. Now it is commonly said that water has become more precious than oil. The statement implies there are great profits to be made from water (and, indeed, rumors abound of water speculators buying up land over aquifers)—but should water be compared with oil? Water is a basic necessity of life. How open should the developing market in water rights become? The latest drought has spurred legislators to revise the state’s water laws in an effort to settle some of the looming battles before they go to court. In particular, the revisions are expected to make more explicit when it is a good idea to transfer water from one river basin to another. And so the story of the Colorado is the story of water in Texas today.

FOR THE FIRST SEVERAL HUNDRED MILES OF ITS JOURNEY, the Colorado usually looks like a series of braided puddles and may even dry up. In the river’s early stretches, it does not regularly contain enough water to satisfy the needs of irrigation or industry, although ranchers who own land beside the river have the right to let their livestock drink from it. Despite the lack of water, however, the wide scope of the river’s bed clearly indicates that from time to time a torrent of water roars through. In a dry place like West Texas (it rains thirteen inches a year in Odessa, seventeen inches a year in Big Spring, and eighteen in San Angelo), the tragedy of large amounts of water appearing all at once only to vanish again was too much to bear. In 1946, inspired by the impressive series of lakes downstream built by the Lower Colorado River Authority ( LCRA), a group of twenty West Texas power brokers met at the Settles Hotel in Big Spring. Nobody knows exactly what was said at the meeting, but it seems safe to guess that the men must have asked themselves, Why should all the water that falls onto arid West Texas soil be allowed to escape toward Austin, where it rains thirty-two inches a year, and into the hands of the LCRA? Deciding that they needed to build some dams of their own, the men formed an organization now known as the Colorado River Municipal Water District ( CRMWD) and obtained a permit from the state to store water.

Texas’ Byzantine water law allows landowners the right to pump unlimited quantities of underground water for their own use under the infamous rule of capture. Once the Colorado gurgles up out of the ground, however, its water becomes the property of the state. Texas owns the water in every creek, stream, river, and lake within its boundaries. Except for landowners with property adjacent to the river, who may use small quantities of water for household purposes and for livestock, anybody who wants to use surface water must obtain a permit that is granted by the state. During the particularly fierce drought of the fifties, state officials learned that they had issued permits for more water than the Rio Grande could provide, spawning a huge, messy legal brawl. In the decades that followed, state

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