Texas Tribune energy and environment reporter Kate Galbraith has been reporting Midland’s drought woes since April, steadily watching as conditions turned from bad to worse. Her recent story for TEXAS MONTHLY shows that the effects of scarce rainfall have extended past environmental issues. Growing fears of water shortages have lead to regulated usage, a challenge to Midland’s long-standing aversion to government interference. Here’s the story behind the story.
How did the idea for this story come about?
During the spring, I realized that the drought was the big environmental story in the state, so I began to write as much about water as I could. Covering Midland was a bit unexpected. Back in April, I was planning a story for the Texas Tribune about how drought restrictions were being imposed by different jurisdictions around the state. I thought I’d include Midland in the story because I’d read about it in the local paper, so I called up Stuart Purvis, the head of Midland utilities. And while talking to him, I immediately realized that Midland’s story was extremely compelling in its own right, so I dropped the piece I’d originally planned, hopped in my car and drove to Midland. Then, knowing that there was still more to tell, I returned in July to do this longer piece, for TEXAS MONTHLY.
What made you focus on Midland over other towns and cities that have seen even less rainfall in the past year?
Actually, Midland’s rainfall total this year was the lowest for any major city in the state, as John Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist based out of A&M, told me in July. I mean, 0.18 inches. That’s less than Death Valley, as I write in the story, and I believe it’s less than plenty of parts of the Sahara desert too. (In mid-August, Midland got a significant amount of rain—more than it had for nearly the previous ten months—in one glorious downpour.) Midland’s in an interesting situation, because it’s never imposed restrictions before, even though it’s basically in a desert. So city officials speak of a cultural shift in the way that Midland thinks about water, which is interesting. Plus, Midland’s an oil town, so there’s highly water-intensive hydraulic fracturing that goes on in the area, though they use groundwater. Also, the drinking water in Midland just isn’t that nice to begin with; many residents, rather than using the stuff out of the tap, get their water from kiosks that have sent it through an extra filtering process. I’d never seen a water kiosk before, so that fascinated me.
You mentioned hard-working oilmen’s idea of coming home to plush, immaculate yards. What kind of effect will a shift to sparse, drought-time landscape have on their nature taming? Do you think Midland will change to drought-resistant landscaping?
There’s already an effect. One landscaping shop I visited, Alldredge Gardens, was making room for more xeriscaping-type materials like crushed granite as I walked through it. And people are looking at artificial turf too, and they’re feeling guilty about things like washing cars. But the real question, as Mayor Wes Perry says, is whether people will go back to their old ways when (or if) the drought ends. And I don’t know the answer to that. There’s even some interesting ambiguity in the landscaping around Midland’s city hall itself. They do have xeriscaping out back, but they’ve got grass in front—admittedly, looking a bit worse for the wear right now.
What factors have allowed Midland to be the “independent, anti-government capital of the world”? Do you believe imposing (and properly enforcing) water regulations will have permanent effects on the town’s psyche?
Midland is an oil town through and through. It’s where George W. Bush got his start, and even the mayor is an oil guy. And that’s an industry that leads the conservative chorus for less government. I think the real question is, Will the water situation hinder growth. Right now, Midland is growing. But a Midland TV station just reported that there are concerns down the road that, for example, new developments might be denied water as the drought worsens. (Click here for more details.)
Historically, how has Midland fared in other drought situations (1950’s, 1900’s) and how does the present situation compare?
Well, my last evening in Midland, I met a man born in 1924 named Tom Flournoy. He was among several dozen people who gathered in downtown Midland to pray for rain, a scene that unfortunately I didn’t have space for in the story. He had lived in Midland through past droughts, of the 1930’s and the 1950’s. The 1950’s is still classified as the state’s worst drought, because of its duration. The current one is shorter, but far more intense. Flournoy told me that this drought felt worse than the 1950’s, but it wasn’t as bad as the 1930’s, because there aren’t the huge dust storms today. Back in the thirties, he said, there were times when “you couldn’t tell the difference between night and day.”
What was the most interesting thing you learned while working on this piece?
I’d have to say the concept of spray-painting a lawn green struck me as fairly novel. The funny part was, you can paint the lawn green, but you can’t paint away the scruffiness that also comes from the drought.
How difficult was it to capture both sides of the story during your time in Midland? Did you find yourself leaning toward disgruntled citizens or concerned officials?
I don’t see my role as taking sides—and indeed I think all of Midland, both citizens and officials, are eager for an end to this crisis. And I must say, the city officials were very open to me; Purvis, the utilities director, told me he felt that West Texas often gets neglected by the general media.
You’ve been reporting on Midland’s situation sense April. What kind of changes have you seen since then?
Well, clearly things have gotten worse. The lakes—which are the main supply for Midland, in addition to a modest amount of groundwater—have gotten emptier, the water restrictions have come in with penalties, and so on. And the strain on the citizens is certainly becoming apparent. The Midland paper and television stations are covering the situation nearly every day, and are doing a great job. The mayor has just started to write a regular column about water in the paper. (Click here for more details.)
What kind of research goes into reporting a story like this?
It’s pretty comprehensive. I spent several days in Midland, talking to city officials and residents and learning what was on people’s minds, and I’ve also talked to people around the state about the general drought situation. So there was tons of material I didn’t have room to use—like the sign on the highway that welcomes travelers to Midland and gives the city motto—“Where the sky’s the limit.” Ironic. Or how on two consecutive days while I was having lunch, I overheard people at nearby tables talking about their sprinklers and the watering restrictions. Or how I drove to Lake Spence, the lake that normally supplies the Permian Basin and is now less than 1 percent full. It was reduced to giant puddles, and visiting it actually felt a bit spooky being there by myself.
You mentioned that Midland is currently seeing a lot of growth. Is the positive economic climate in Midland enough to offset the effects of the drought and continue the city’s growth?
As I said, the real question will be, Will water issues impede the city’s growth. I mean, Permian Basin cities, including Midland, are about to get a water rate hike of nearly $150 per year. And the local papers are reporting that Midland could reach a stage where new housing developments are denied water. That’s tough.
As an environmental writer, what long-term steps do you think are necessary for Midland and cities in similar situations? Do you believe there will ever be permanent water regulations?
I believe that not just Midland but the entire state will come out of this drought with a new perspective on how precious water is. They’re now saying this is the second-worst drought in record in Texas, and Midland is hardly the only part of the state in a bad situation. I did the math: If it doesn’t rain, the lakes that supply Austin will be out of water—empty—in well under a year, at current drawdown rates. Of course, current drawdown rates won’t continue if the rain doesn’t come, but the forecast for the fall is pretty bleak. La Niña, the phenomenon that’s been fingered as the immediate cause for this drought, is supposed to return in the fall. Frankly, everybody’s praying for a tropical storm or hurricane, with apologies to the coast. And it bears noting that general predictions about climate change are that extremes will get more extreme. And that’s worrisome for a state that wants to keep growing rapidly.