Disaster, Part One: Lubbock

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

Tags: LUBBOCK, DROUGHT, WATER,

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