Of the various kinds of large-scale natural disasters that lay waste to communities and change the course of history, a drought is by far the most boring. Unlike a flood or a volcanic eruption or a tsunami, a drought is vague and hard to discern. It has no action. It does not terrify children or fill the freeways with evacuees. No one runs down the street screaming, “Drought!!!” Months or years will pass before it’s evident that a drought is even underway. And once it is, the fact that at any minute it might quickly and unceremoniously conclude, with a burst of sustained rainfall, tends to detract from the urgency of the situation. You don’t flee a drought—you just wait it out.
As a result, droughts have a tenuous hold on the public imagination. Though they can be just as deadly as the worst tornado or earth- quake—if not more so—they rarely lead the newscasts or furnish the plotlines for Hollywood disaster flicks. To most people, droughts are little more than an inconvenience, if they’re noticed at all. Farmers, ranchers, and those who depend on the agriculture industry for their livelihoods are, of course, the exceptions. For them, a rainfall report is roughly equivalent to a bank statement and subject to the same scrutiny. Yet it requires a truly extreme drought, such as the one Texas suffered through last year, before the average city dweller sits up and takes notice.
What happened last year was unprecedented: a paltry average of just 14.8 inches of rain fell across the entire state, making 2011 the driest year in recorded Texas history. At the height of the dry spell, in October, 88 percent of the state was in “exceptional drought,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a weekly summation of conditions produced by a range of governmental organizations. Agriculture suffered the worst, with losses totaling $7.62 billion, including $3.32 billion for the livestock industry, which saw the bovine population drop by around 600,000 cows—the largest one-year decline ever. Lawns dried up and landscaping died as municipalities statewide enacted stringent watering restrictions. By spring of this year, when sustained rains finally pulled most of the state out of drought, everyone was paying attention.
Yet although it was remarkable, last year’s drought was only the latest in a string of dry spells reaching back through Texas history and into this region’s deep time. The lack of sufficient moisture has been a recurring theme in the accounts of nearly everyone who has passed through or tried to make this place home. The chronicles of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, the first European to record a journey through Texas, noted the misery of various drought-stricken native peoples he encountered. Three and a half centuries later, a common view was the one expressed by a disgruntled columnist for Texas Farm and Ranch in an 1884 editorial: “With adequate rain, there is no country equal on Earth to Texas, but because drought is almost certain to prevail, there is no country on Earth less to be relied on, and consequently, less desirable. During the twentieth century, a serious drought left its mark on some part of the state in every single decade.
Drought and dry weather are a part of our heritage as much as cowboy boots and Tex-Mex. This was likely more evident to a greater number of Texans when the state was more rural, but, in part because of the severe impact of drought on rural areas, Texas has undergone a dramatic shift toward urbanization over the past sixty years. In 1950 the population split between urban and rural areas in Texas was around sixty to forty; today it’s almost ninety to ten. And though the residents of our growing, thirsty cities may be more insulated from the effects of drought than their counterparts in the country, they are the very ones whose policies, routines, and expectations will determine whether our scant supply of water will be enough to go around.
This week, Texas Monthly will begin a prolonged and in-depth exploration of the problem of water in Texas. Our investigation begins with the July issue of the magazine, which hits newsstands and become available online on Wednesday. The issue contains a special report that will take you across many centuries to trace the intense challenges that our dry and often droughty climate have posed to many generations of Texans—and to consider the adaptations we’ll need to make for a successful future. We have attempted to run a common thread through the struggles of the various people who have lived here over time and confronted this frustrating climate. Our focus is highly selective, but the chronology is epic, beginning some four thousand years ago with the mysterious and long-departed inhabitants of the Lower Pecos River, who left behind magnificent pictographs that may have functioned as entreaties for continued rain. Our end point is an exploration of the future climate models under observation in academic, business, and governmental circles and the kinds of adaptations they compel us to make, things like the Kay Bailey Hutchison Desalination Plant, in El Paso, the largest of its kind in the world. In between we’ll stop to consider the fifties drought in an oral history of that world-changing disaster; the drought of 2011 through the eyes of the state photographer; and of course, the State Water Plan, that disorganized, underfunded, and hugely important road map that theoretically charts our future. (Check back starting Tuesday to read these stories by Roger D. Hodge, John Burnett, Nate Blakeslee, and Kate Galbraith.)
But these stories are just the beginning. We’ve also teamed up with our friends at KUT and StateImpact to bring you a one-hour radio documentary based on the contents of this special report. The show builds on the award-winning drought coverage that KUT has put together over the past year, and creates a vivid multi-dimensional sense of this critical topic. That show will air on KUT (90.5 FM) June 22, at 3 p.m., and subsequently on public radio