Drawing Straws

For more than fifty years, Texas has issued version after version of a comprehensive water plan. The newest edition includes $53 billion in projects, ranging from new reservoirs to treatment plants. So why is so much of the state always left high and dry?
Photograph by Adam Voorhes

In 1968 the 
Texas Water 
Development Board submitted 
a dire report to 
the Legislature 
warning 
that the state 
would run 
out of water 
by 1985. This prediction—an update to the first water plan, produced seven years earlier—was accompanied by a map purporting to show a solution to the alleged problem: a network of hundreds of miles of canals carrying water from the lower reaches of the Mississippi River to the farthest corners of South and West Texas, an engineering feat roughly equivalent in scope and expense to building the Panama Canal.

The state’s engineers could be forgiven for thinking big. The sixties were a time, difficult to remember today, when governments at all levels made enormous investments in public works. Texas was in the midst of a dam-building boom that had begun in the aftermath of the water shortages of the fifties, when the worst multiyear drought in state history threatened the drinking supply as never before. With the

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