When the Sky Ran Dry

Texas has suffered through many dry spells, but none so bad as the fifties drought. To the West Texans caught in its fiercest grip, it seemed like the world was ending. Half a century later, the time it never rained remains as vivid as ever.
Photograph by Michael O'Brien

Texans expect drought. It is our curse of geography and climatology to live in a zone where, as the historian Walter Prescott Webb wrote in 1953, “humidity and aridity are constantly at war.” During every decade of the twentieth century, some part of the state endured a serious drought. In 1917, which before 2011 was the driest year on record, an average of just fifteen inches of rain fell across the state. (During a normal year, an average of around thirty inches falls.) During the thirties, soil devoid of moisture turned to dust, rose in fearsome clouds, and blotted out the sun across the High Plains. But the drought that changed Texas forever occurred from 1950 to 1957, when severely deficient rainfall plunged the entire state into an agonizing water shortage. Crops shriveled, creeks turned to sand, thirsty cattle bawled, and reservoirs and wells dried up. When the water finally returned, the state had been irrevocably scarred.

Flying from Houston to Lubbock today, you can see out the window how the dry spell of the fifties shaped the landscape. Reservoirs cling to the outskirts of cities, while many of the tiny towns are in various stages of withering away. The drought triggered these alterations. Between 1950 and 1970, the number of reservoirs in Texas more than doubled; from 1950 to 1960, the number of farms and ranches shrank from 345,000 to 247,000, and the state’s rural people declined from more than a third of the population to a quarter.

Dallas was the hardest-hit major city. Its reservoirs got so low that water had to be pumped down from the Red River, whose high salt content fouled pipes, choked landscape plants, and threatened kidney patients. The relentless heat wave killed penguins at the Marsalis Zoo and compelled the groundskeepers at the Cotton Bowl to drill a water well in the end zone to keep the turf alive.

In the rural areas the suffering was akin to a biblical plague. True to form, the farmers and ranchers confronted their predicament with resourcefulness and grim humor.

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