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. 
Mon June 25, 2012 11:59 pm
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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,

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