The War for the Colorado
From the West Texas Caprock to Matagorda Bay, a drought-prone river triggers animosities and provokes battles over its life-sustaining waters. Downstream and upstream interests loathe each other, farmers fear losing out to cities, and everyone is united against raiders from faraway San Antonio and Corpus Christi.
The Colorado river begins as a series of subtle draws that extend like fingers into the edge of the Panhandle, interrupting its flatness. The draws, formed by the relentless action of storm runoff seeking lower elevations, funnel water over the Caprock and down into the West Texas plains. In Dawson County, just north of Lamesa, one of these formations contains a small spring that has run continuously for as long as anyone can remember. This spring is usually described as the headwaters of the Colorado River. When I went to see it, I thought of Bolero, Ravel’s eighteen-minute crescendo: That piece of music starts out so softly that you can barely hear it, and the Colorado also begins as a whisper. The spring appears from behind swaths of grass in a modest little trickle about one foot wide. From there the water sets off gamely toward the east, disappearing into a long line of small mesquite trees that are the first to drink from it.
It is hard to imagine that this meek flow could ever amount to much, but like Bolero, the Colorado builds steadily in volume—and the bigger it gets, the more its waters will be coveted, schemed over, and fought for. During its journey of nearly nine hundred miles, dusty West Texas towns drink from it, pecan and peanut farmers irrigate with it, Austin’s microchip factories rely on it, and coastal rice farmers use it to flood their fields. Matagorda Bay shrimpers and sport-fishing charters catch only what the river helps sustain. Not every community is fortunate enough to be situated near a large river, however, and not every river is as productive as the Colorado. As the recent drought has made all too plain, many cities and towns in Texas have ballooned in population without assuring themselves of a future water supply. The result is a rash of deals and fights between those who have a lot of water and those who don’t have enough.
Water wars are as old as the river, but today the weapons of choice are lobbyists, lawsuits, and money. For the past three years officials of Corpus Christi have watched the levels of the city’s two reservoirs sink lower and lower, to the point where emergency rationing may be needed. They are willing to pay $15.8 million to pump from the Colorado—a sum that others who rely on the river are neither willing nor able to match. San Antonio has also inquired about Colorado water. If desperate urban areas start bidding up the price of water, will there still be pecan farmers in San Saba and rice farmers in Matagorda County?
In a mostly thirsty land, the passions that such questions stir are not reasonable ones. Water carves fantastic whorls in limestone riverbeds, but the work it does on the imaginations of people living in arid parts is even more spectacular. Now it is commonly said that water has become more precious than oil. The statement implies there are great profits to be made from water (and, indeed, rumors abound of water speculators buying up land over aquifers)—but should water be compared with oil? Water is a basic necessity of life. How open should the developing market in water rights become? The latest drought has spurred legislators to revise the state’s water laws in an effort to settle some of the looming battles before they go to court. In particular, the revisions are expected to make more explicit when it is a good idea to transfer water from one river basin to another. And so the story of the Colorado is the story of water in Texas today.
FOR THE FIRST SEVERAL HUNDRED MILES OF ITS JOURNEY, the Colorado usually looks like a series of braided puddles and may even dry up. In the river’s early stretches, it does not regularly contain enough water to satisfy the needs of irrigation or industry, although ranchers who own land beside the river have the right to let their livestock drink from it. Despite the lack of water, however, the wide scope of the river’s bed clearly indicates that from time to time a torrent of water roars through. In a dry place like West Texas (it rains thirteen inches a year in Odessa, seventeen inches a year in Big Spring, and eighteen in San Angelo), the tragedy of large amounts of water appearing all at once only to vanish again was too much to bear. In 1946, inspired by the impressive series of lakes downstream built by the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), a group of twenty West Texas power brokers met at the Settles Hotel in Big Spring. Nobody knows exactly what was said at the meeting, but it seems safe to guess that the men must have asked themselves, Why should all the water that falls onto arid West Texas soil be allowed to escape toward Austin, where it rains thirty-two inches a year, and into the hands of the LCRA? Deciding that they needed to build some dams of their own, the men formed an organization now known as the Colorado River Municipal Water District (CRMWD) and obtained a permit from the state to store water.
Texas’ Byzantine water law allows landowners the right to pump unlimited quantities of underground water for their own use under the infamous rule of capture. Once the Colorado gurgles up out of the ground, however, its water becomes the property of the state. Texas owns the water in every creek, stream, river, and lake within its boundaries. Except for landowners with property adjacent to the river, who may use small quantities of water for household purposes and for livestock, anybody who wants to use surface water must obtain a permit that is granted by the state. During the particularly fierce drought of the fifties, state officials learned that they had issued permits for more water than the Rio Grande could provide, spawning a huge, messy legal brawl. In the decades that followed, state officials sorted through the claims on all of the rivers, decided who owned what, and established a hierarchy that made clear who would be served first when there wasn’t enough water to go around. As a result, all of the water in the Colorado River is legally assigned to somebody. Today millions of people depend upon the Colorado, but only 1,266 parties hold the water rights to all of its bounty.
John Grant, the general manager of the CRMWD, oversees a water empire that is now the primary provider of water from the western stretches of the Colorado, much as its downstream counterpart, the LCRA, dominates the river below. (A third entity, the Upper Colorado River Authority, is sandwiched between the two, but it is far smaller and doesn’t play the same role as a water supplier.) He is an engineer by training. Like O. H. Ivie, the man who preceded him, Grant began his career at the Fort Worth engineering firm of Freese and Nichols—a hiring pattern that speaks to the water district’s insular nature, as well as its predilection for large-scale construction projects. Just about all of the CRMWD’s customers are municipalities, water being too precious and too expensive in this dry corner for any major agricultural or industrial concern to afford. Big Spring, Snyder, and Odessa are members of the water district, but the organization also has contracts to sell to six other cities, including Midland, San Angelo, and at some point in the future, Abilene. Last year the CRMWD provided a total of 20 billion gallons of water to its customers, of which 2 billion came from wells and 18 billion came from the Colorado. On an ordinary day the upper Colorado doesn’t look like it could volunteer so much water, but the miracle of dams in a dry land is their ability to catch the runaway torrents that appear only from time to time.
In March Grant showed me around the CRMWD’s offices in Big Spring. At the heart of the operation is a darkened control room that is manned 24 hours a day. One employee was sitting behind a large curved desk when we visited, studying the wall in front of him. The wall consisted of a floor-to-ceiling glass map of the CRMWD’s territory; a meandering blue line showed the course of the Colorado, and straight black lines showed the district’s pipelines, some of which were carrying water to places gravity never intended for it to go. The thirst of expanding oil towns like Midland and Odessa fueled the growth of the CRMWD (the Colorado flows straight across the fabled Permian Basin), and the oil industry’s faith in pipelines seems to have infected the water district: The CRMWD oversees 280 miles of river and more than 600 miles of pipeline—more than twice as much pipe as river. Its greatest engineering feat is a 157-mile-long conduit, the longest water-bearing pipeline in the state, which runs from the O. H. Ivie Reservoir to Odessa. Ivie (named for the former general manager) sits 1,551 feet above sea level, while Odessa lies at 2,891 feet, meaning that the water has to be lifted more than a quarter of a mile to get there. Twenty-three pump stations are required to move all of the water that the CRMWD delivers. The employees who man the control room spend all day answering customers’ calls, then turning pumps on and opening valves to meet the demands.
It is expensive, however, to reroute the course of water and particularly expensive to send it uphill. In a bout of self-reliance unmatched elsewhere on the Colorado, the customers of the CRMWD have chosen to pay (and are still paying) for every one of the district’s dams, pump stations, and pipelines, rather than rely on state or federal money. Consequently, even though the CRMWD runs a lean operation (it gets by with eighty employees) and generates no profits at all, the average rate that the district charges for untreated water is more than $1 per thousand gallons—one of the highest in the state.
Despite the effort the water district has put forth to capture the Colorado, its victories do not quite amount to the unquestionable triumph over nature that the men in the Settles Hotel had dreamed of: The district hasn’t been able to reap nearly as much water as it had hoped, and much of the water it does get is too salty. The CRMWD’s first reservoir, fewer than fifty miles from the little spring near Lamesa, is Lake J. B. Thomas, which was completed in 1952. Lake Thomas hasn’t been full now for three and a half decades. “The drainage area that feeds Thomas consists mainly of Borden County, and we’ve had no significant rain there in the last five years,” said Grant. “Right now, Thomas is five percent full.” The CRMWD attempts to increase the amount of rain to be collected by its watershed through a weather-modification program—scattering pellets of silver iodide into any storm clouds that come by—but lately there haven’t been clouds to seed. What little water Thomas contains is there only because of the CRMWD’s assistance: By last December the lake had dropped so low that it threatened to fall below the intake pipes that supply the city of Snyder, which can’t be served by any other reservoir. Grant’s solution was to make the Colorado flow backward. For several months now the CRMWD has been pumping water from Ivie, which lies downstream, back up to Thomas. In the meantime, farmers have been planting crops in parts of the lake bottom that have been dry for several years.
The second lake that the CRMWD built, E. V. Spence, has been more prolific, largely because it captures water from both the Colorado and one of its major tributaries, Beals Creek. But the water Spence captures is unusually salty, even by West Texas standards. At the moment, Spence water is unfit for human consumption. The primary cause of the salinity is natural salt deposits, and the secondary cause is pollution from the oil industry, both of which stem from the mistake the river made in crossing the Permian Basin. Once the floor of an inland sea, the basin is a geological feature lying mostly underground, but just south of Colorado City, the river flows over exposed Permian rocks—a source of halite, otherwise known as rock salt.
Commercial production of oil in the Permian Basin began in 1920 with an oil well known as the Westbrook Field Top No. 1, just west of the Coleman Ranch in Mitchell County near Westbrook. The Colorado runs right through the Coleman Ranch. Today derricks and oil pumps crowd the fields beside the river like steel trees. As any wildcatter can sadly attest, a rig is as likely to strike salt water as it is oil, and even productive wells yield brine along with oil. Over the years oil-field workers in the Permian have let untold quantities of oil-field brine flow onto the surrounding land, turning patches of it into poison ground where nothing at all will grow. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that there are more than 20,000 abandoned wells in the Colorado river basin that may still be flowing salt water today, and while the Texas Railroad Commission is attempting to take care of the problem, it has been plugging only 1,500 wells a year in the entire state. One of the worst offenders was a company called Atlas, which owned the wells on a section of the Coleman Ranch until the Railroad Commission shut the company down.
The CRMWD built its last reservoir, Ivie, at the confluence of the Concho and the Colorado, thereby obtaining much more water than was available anywhere upstream. Ivie has proved to be the district’s most reliable reservoir; it filled to capacity two years after construction was complete—eight years ahead of schedule. Even now, coming out of an extended drought, the lake is 86 percent full. And Ivie’s water is of good quality. But the LCRA opposed the construction of Ivie, saying that the CRMWD was robbing them of all of the water in the Concho—an estimated 100,000 acre-feet per year (an acre-foot is the amount of water that will cover an acre of ground to a depth of one foot). The LCRA convinced the state supreme court that being deprived of that water would make it difficult for the LCRA to meet its obligations downstream. But then state leaders including then-governor Mark White brokered a deal between the feuding organizations: The CRMWD was allowed to build Ivie after it agreed to release water if the LCRA’s lakes fell below certain levels.
That compromise was tested last year, when extended dry weather prompted the LCRA to demand water from Ivie for the first time. From a downstream vantage point, it is hard to appreciate just how obnoxious such a request seemed in the sun-scorched precincts of West Texas. As far as the CRMWD was concerned, the request was tantamount to a rich relative dunning a poor one for money. John Grant sent down some of the saltiest water he had. He opened the bottom floodgates at Spence, letting out the heaviest, most saline water, supplemented it with water from the top, and moved the mixture through Ivie and on downstream. It was diluted along the way, but not by much. That wasn’t the only time the CRMWD had sent salt water downstream; in 1989, after unusually heavy rains caused a natural salt lake near Big Spring to overflow and spill into Spence, the CRMWD simply moved the worst of that water along. “Our lakes were built for municipal water supplies,” said John Grant. “Our obligation is to deliver the best quality water we can to West Texas.”
ABOUT FORTY MILES EAST OF LAKE IVIE, the Colorado moves into San Saba and Mills counties and slips under one of the oldest suspension bridges still spanning the river. A perpetual wind makes the cables sing, and through the cracks between the bridge’s wooden beams, you can see the muddy red water below, which usually amounts to a pretty respectable flow. The river will still dry up if it fails to rain for a while, but from the bridge it is apparent that the countryside has changed from arid to merely semi-arid. Along the banks of the river, instead of desert scrub, there are elms, oaks, and most significantly, pecan trees.
Texas is the nation’s second biggest producer of pecans, and nowhere in the state are more grown than in San Saba. Not long after it slides under the suspension bridge, the Colorado comes upon property that belongs to a man named Paul Leonard, who is by far the largest pecan grower in the area. Pecan trees require the annual equivalent of sixty inches of rain (unless they grow wild along the banks of rivers and creeks, where the roots are immersed in water), but it rains only half that much in this part of Texas, so growers have to irrigate. Leonard, who has steadily expanded his pecan business, now owns five separate water rights. Together they allow him to take 5,574 acre-feet from the river every year, an amount of water equivalent to about one third of Lake Austin farther downstream. Seven large pumps lift water from the river up onto Leonard’s property, and when all seven get going, the river can run dry below his land. Used to being criticized for his large-scale consumption, he was feisty on the subject. “Water’s precious,” he said. “I cherish mine. I use it, and I conserve it. And I’m converting that water into foodstuff for the American people.”
Initially Leonard owned just the water right historically attached to his riverside property (bought by Leonard’s father, a well-known Fort Worth merchant), but over the years he acquired four additional rights. In three cases, he purchased nearby land that carried a water right with it, but Leonard’s most recent purchase was different: Three years ago he bought a water right from a party elsewhere on the Colorado without buying land and transferred the right to his own holdings. It wasn’t the first time a deal like that had occurred on the Colorado, but the marketing of water rights is far more common in other basins, such as the Rio Grande, and a lot of Colorado people didn’t like it. “I had neighbors and downstream users protesting the deal,” said Leonard, “but we had a hearing, and I got it done.”
Pecans like river water a lot but they don’t like salt. Most crops don’t. Put salt water on a pecan tree or a peanut plant and the nuts they produce will be shriveled and small. Irrigating with salt water also corrodes equipment and ruins the soil. Both times that the CRMWD sent salt water down the Colorado, Leonard realized what the water portended and quit pumping. It took several months for the river to clear up in each case, and Leonard didn’t get the full benefit of his water right those years, but he didn’t lose a crop either. Other people weren’t so fortunate. The property that Foy Gibson owns lies downstream of Leonard’s orchards. The land has been in his family for four generations, ever since Gibson’s great-great-great-uncle Billy, who was a mustanger, bought it from the original surveyor of Lampasas County. Gibson grows peanuts (which he sells to the makers of Jif peanut butter, Hershey candy bars, and Mars candy bars), pecans, wheat, corn, and hay, and he irrigates with river water. I spoke to him in mid-February at the feedstore he owns in Lometa. The store had a concrete floor, a dusty collection of hardware for sale, and a sign by the cash register that read “Impeach President Clinton and Her Husband.” One wall also featured photographs of what Gibson’s peanut plants looked like after being doused with salt water for several weeks in 1989, after the CRMWD’s first saline release. The plants were a sickly brownish-yellow, and they should have been green.
“I knew that it was salty,” said Gibson. “The water had never been that clear before. It was a pretty blue, and there was lots more of it. But I didn’t know what it would do.” That year Gibson lost his entire peanut crop and most of his pecans. It was another five or six years before he could make the land productive again—and then only by growing coastal bermuda grass, which is more salt-tolerant. “The only way you can get rid of salt,” said Gibson, “is to wait for it to leach through the land.”
ON FEBRUARY 19 A STORM BARRELED into Central Texas that was unlike any the Lower Colorado River Authority had seen in some time. Everyone at the LCRA knew that if the storm passed over the Hill Country, the area’s peculiar geology would direct nearly all the rain straight into the authority’s six man-made lakes. Those mammoth lakes make the LCRA the undisputed heavyweight on the Colorado; in wet years they hold an epic, seemingly endless supply. The lakes are the secret behind Austin’s prosperity—among those drawn by their steady assurance are the area’s microchip manufacturers, which drink up large quantities of water in their factories. But only a gargantuan flood fills the lakes up, and the area can go for months or years on end without seeing a storm of any consequence. The fickleness of the weather makes the LCRA guard its lakes jealously, because it never knows when the water is going to leave again. This fervent devotion is often interpreted as tyrannical control by the rest of the Colorado River basin, which loves and hates the almighty LCRA in equal measure.
The storm that came in February was preceded by the worst drought in recent decades. For three long years, there had been no rain, or not enough rain, or rain in all the wrong places. At a certain point, things had gotten so bad that LCRA officials feared they might have to refuse water to rice farmers during the coming irrigation season. But then the February storm headed directly for the Hill Country. It started raining that evening, it rained all night, and it was still raining the next morning. The area’s granite and limestone shoulders shrugged off almost all the water, hurriedly funneling it into the streams and creeks that feed the Colorado. Around three in the morning on February 20, Wes Birdwell, the hydrologist in charge of the LCRA’s lake system, woke to the sound of his beeper going off—flash floods were developing on the Colorado’s main tributaries. Before the storm passed, the raging Llano, probably the most flood-prone river in the Colorado watershed, would crest at 28 feet, while the San Saba would rise high enough to cover Texas Highway 16. Birdwell ordered floodgates opened, letting the precious water so carefully hoarded in the dry years thunder out.
Austin sits right below the Hill Country’s profligate runoff, a fact that explains how an organization as strange and as unique as the LCRA came to exist in the first place. The city used to feel the brunt of every storm that visited the Hill Country; twice it tried blocking the Colorado, and twice the river smashed its dams to pieces. Finally in 1927 a utility company started to build a dam across the Colorado, hoping to use the river to generate hydroelectric power, only to run out of money before the dam was completed. A group of political dealmakers led by State Senator Alvin Wirtz, a local lawyer, suggested that the federal government bail out the utility, arguing that the dam was a flood-control device, but federal officials balked at providing tax dollars for a private construction project. That was when Wirtz came up with the idea of creating a quasi-public entity to finish the job. The Lower Colorado River Authority, born in 1934, was officially charged with stopping floods, providing a reliable supply of water, and (so that it could become self-sufficient) generating electricity. Other utilities had refused to run power lines across the sparsely populated Hill Country, but the LCRA would soon bring the first electric lights to the area.
The LCRA built six dams across the Colorado (all with federal funds) over the next decade, turning valleys carved by the river into the Highland Lakes. The first in the chain is immense Lake Buchanan, then little Inks, then skinny LBJ, medium-sized Marble Falls, giant, spidery Travis, and finally Lake Austin. The six-lake system functions like a series of pillows, each further absorbing the blow of any flood. Buchanan and Travis, the two largest reservoirs, also serve as giant vaults, storing water that is sold to the LCRA’s customers. Travis was designed to handle particularly severe flooding as well: Although the lake is technically full at 681 feet above sea level, it can rise as high as 715 feet in an emergency. Even when all six lakes are brimming, the cushion Travis provides is generous enough to accept the most punishing storm LCRA officials imagine ever confronting. “Forty inches in three days,” said Birdwell. “Noah’s flood.”
But lakes were not all the LCRA built. The organization became the behemoth it is today partly at the prodding of Lyndon Johnson; as a young congressman, Johnson had helped obtain federal financing for the dam that formed Lake Travis, and he later intervened at a crucial moment in the LCRA’s history. In 1946 its officials were flustered to learn that they had made a profit for the first time—by law they were prohibited from earning money. They began discussing how to refund the embarrassing surplus. “The Lower Colorado River Valley is a long way from the Garden of Eden,” wrote Johnson in a lengthy admonishment. “But you gentlemen have it in your power to bring us a lot closer.” Johnson recommended spending the money on heavy farm equipment for a soil-conservation program. The birth of the conservation effort marked the moment when the LCRA shed its identity as an ordinary river authority and started to become something more like the emperor of the Colorado. Initially the authority generated power only by hydroelectric generation, but when demand outstripped what it could produce, the LCRA also started burning gas and coal. Last year the river authority earned $407 million from the sale of power and $12 million from water. And the LCRA continues to expand: Recently it has bought up wastewater systems, built low-income housing, started exploring for gas and oil, and sold natural gas on a wholesale basis. The LCRA’s hard-to-peg nature vexes competitors in the power business, who resent the authority’s exemption from taxes, and just last month a legislative committee suggested that the LCRA be forced to sell some of its assets.
Whatever else critics say, the LCRA does a fantastic job of harvesting floodwaters. Over the years that task has gotten more complicated, as real estate developers have swathed the Highland Lakes with summer homes, retirement communities, and boat docks. After thirty years elapsed without a truly roaring flood, some myopic builders even put houses in the floodplain of Lake Travis, which were swamped on Christmas Day in 1991 and again last February. Within several days of that storm’s passage, all six of the LCRA’s lakes were full for the first time in four years. But despite this seeming abundance, the question of a future water shortage plagues even the LCRA. Almost three times as many people live in Central Texas today as when the river authority was created. If the area’s population continues to multiply, then sometime in the next few decades, the LCRA will have to deny water to agricultural customers to satisfy the needs of cities. The LCRA sells both “firm water,” which is available even during droughts, and “interruptible water,” which may not be. Firm water costs $105 an acre-foot—too expensive for farmers but still just one third of what the CRMWD charges—and it is sold to cities and industries. Interruptible water is far cheaper at $4.50 an acre-foot but is sold only to agriculture. About half the rice farmers in Wharton and Matagorda counties buy water from the LCRA, and they all rely on the interruptible supply. But at some point there will be no interruptible water, because the LCRA will need every bit of rain the Hill Country provides to guarantee water to the growing pool of people willing to pay for firm water.
All the LCRA can do to stave off that day is preach conservation and augment its supply. The authority encountered stiff opposition the last time it proposed a new reservoir, so general manager Mark Rose has been thinking of buying land and drilling wells under the rule of capture. Because there are already too many straws in the Edwards Aquifer, Rose has been looking south, where the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer contains plenty of groundwater. That’s probably where San Antonio will turn as well—and for that reason, whether it is over the Colorado or over the Carrizo-Wilcox, a major water battle between San Antonio and the LCRA is likely to erupt in the future. Meanwhile the river authority is paying a dozen lobbyists to protect its interests while the Legislature ponders the subject of water. Nobody at the LCRA can forget that state leaders once pushed them into giving 100,000 acre-feet to the CRMWD; what if one of the thirstier cities tried a similar end run around the river authority? It’s not inconceivable. “San Antonio is a big city with a lot of money,” said Bruce Wassinger, an attorney who works at the LCRA. “Water doesn’t flow downhill. It flows to money.”
THE COLORADO REACHES BILL LEHRER, a 72-year-old man with birdlike features and a mulelike stubbornness, about sixty miles before it empties into Matagorda Bay. In the past few years Lehrer has become a pivotal figure in debates over the Colorado. Near the small town of Garwood, five wide suction pipes that he owns reach down into the muddy red flow. Lehrer owns Garwood Irrigation Company, which delivers water to rice farmers. The company’s 175 miles of canals fan out over Colorado and Wharton counties like the branches of a tree. Rice is the biggest cash crop in the region, and the water the canals carry is considered the lifeblood of the area. In the past Lehrer has sold water only to farmers (at rates lower than the LCRA’s), but now he wants to sell part of his water right to Corpus Christi. And the water right that Lehrer owns is a private property right, meaning there is little anybody can do to restrict what he does with it.
It is highly ironic that Lehrer, of all people, should become a symbol of the urban usurpation of water, as his company has always served agrarian interests. Garwood is one of four irrigation companies, all formed at the turn of the century, that enabled the local rice industry to flourish. In their day the irrigation companies were major entrepreneurial efforts: Investors from around the country (including Lehrer’s paternal grandfather) subsidized the cost of digging the canals, thereby quadrupling or quintupling the amount of land that could be flooded for rice farming.
Lehrer never would have contemplated selling water to anyone but farmers except for an entirely unexpected windfall—one that came about after a long history of controversy with the LCRA. Animosity between the irrigation companies and the LCRA began almost as soon as the authority built its lakes, which curtailed the amount of water available to downstream users. After some legal wrangling, the LCRA agreed to make sure that the irrigation companies got the same amount of water they had used in years immediately before the lakes were constructed. Every day the LCRA measures the flow coming into its system, then passes along enough “run of the river” water to meet the quotas due the longtime water users downstream. If the river stops flowing, however, then even the irrigation companies have to buy water.
The Lehrers were never happy with this arrangement. In 1900 Garwood had filed a claim establishing the right to irrigate 40,000 acres of land. No amount of water was mentioned. In 1936, however, Lehrer’s father was persuaded to sign a contract saying the LCRA would provide him with enough to irrigate only 6,858 acres. “My dad complained about that, but the attorney said, ‘Go ahead and sign it, and I’ll get it straightened out later on,’” recalled Lehrer. The attorney was Alvin Wirtz—who, in a clear conflict of interest, also represented the LCRA.
Wirtz never did straighten things out. Over the next 52 years, Garwood paid $2.1 million to the LCRA for water—water the family believed should have been theirs for free. Eventually Bill Lehrer came to look on the LCRA as his own personal adversary. “They’ve been attempting to run us off for the last forty years,” he said recently.
During that period the LCRA acquired two of the area’s irrigation companies—the Gulf Coast Water Company and Lakeside. The farmers served by those companies are the ones who now rely on the LCRA’s interruptible supply. By acquiring the water rights of those companies, the LCRA expanded the amount its lakes are allowed to retain and prevented any newcomers from gaining access to the Colorado. The authority made repeated attempts to buy Garwood, but Lehrer wouldn’t sell. “I don’t think it’s healthy for the LCRA to control the river all the way to the Gulf of Mexico,” he explained.
Then, in 1989, after Lehrer had nearly given up hope of satisfaction, state officials ruled that Garwood’s water right was senior to anybody else’s on the river. They also ruled that the original 1900 claim entitled Lehrer to 168,000 acre-feet a year. That is about eight times the supply in Lake Austin. Even in the driest years, Lehrer’s rice farmers have never needed that much; the most they have ever required is 133,000 acre-feet, leaving Lehrer with a big surplus. “We were just sitting here gloating,” he says, “when all of a sudden people who wanted water started coming out of the woodwork.”
Lehrer will lose the right to any water he doesn’t use, so he has a strong incentive to sell. Among the parties that approached him were an electric utility, another river authority, San Antonio, and Corpus Christi. It rains 42 inches a year in Matagorda County, but only 28 in Corpus. The watershed that supplies most of the city’s supply was originally called the Wild Horse Desert, and it is not particularly productive. Another part of the city’s watershed lies in the Hill Country, where it rains more, but most of that water disappears into giant sinkholes that feed the Edwards Aquifer. Half the water that does make it to the city’s two reservoirs proceeds to evaporate as the region’s hot, dry winds drink it up. By far the biggest consumers of water in Corpus are the city’s fifteen petrochemical plants, and city officials believe the area’s future growth depends on securing new sources of water.
In 1992 Corpus offered Lehrer $15.8 million for his extra 35,000 acre-feet. Before Corpus could use the water right, however, it had to be changed into one permitted to serve municipal and industrial needs. Corpus also had to obtain permission for the water to travel to the Nueces River basin. When Lehrer learned that the LCRA was seeking to change the nature of an agricultural water right it owned, he promptly filed an amendment to the LCRA’s application asking if Garwood could do exactly the same thing. Then on January 30 of this year, Garwood filed an application to ask if the water can go to the Nueces River basin. Now the only thing standing between Corpus and Colorado River water is a ruling by the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Committee (TNRCC).
The TNRCC takes at least six months to rule on interbasin transfers and longer if there are objections. “We have what we call a balancing test,” said Bruce Moulton, who works in the agency’s water policy division. “We have to weigh the benefits and the detriments to the basin of origin versus the benefits and the detriments to the receiving basin. Will the water be needed in the Colorado in the next fifty years? Will it affect the economy of the Nueces River basin?” Lehrer is hopeful the TNRCC will rule in his favor: Because of a quirk of geography, most of the rice fields that Garwood serves lie in the Lavaca River basin, not the Colorado, so Garwood’s water already leaves its home basin.
Most years an additional 35,000 acre-feet could probably be pumped from the Colorado without affecting anybody else on the river. But dry years are a different story, and the possibility of Colorado water traveling halfway to the Rio Grande has caused consternation up and down the basin. The transaction disturbs those who depend on the Colorado because it looks like a harbinger of days to come, when sprawling urban areas that have outgrown their own supplies will start bidding up the price of other people’s water. Far upstream, the CRMWD has filed an objection to Garwood’s request. Because of their obligation to release water from Ivie if the Highland Lakes get low, CRMWD officials worry that if Corpus takes an extra 35,000 acre-feet, the reduction in the river’s overall supply may cause the LCRA to ask for water more often—water that the people of West Texas have paid dearly to collect. The LCRA also filed a letter of objection on February 14. “Show me how I’m not going to get hurt by it,” said Mark Rose.
FROM GARWOOD, OBLIVIOUS TO THE NOISY controversy it has stirred, the Colorado River moves placidly toward the coast. Before it reaches its union with the Gulf, however, some water is diverted to cool the tremendous heat produced by the fission reactions at the South Texas Nuclear Power Project. Some water irrigates grass on the turf farms that line this part of river basin. And some water is purposefully sent into Matagorda Bay, which without fresh water would quickly become a hypersaline environment that could not support young shrimp, oyster beds, and redfish. Rare birds flock to the area, drawn by the rice fields and the marine diet. It is increasingly hard to make a living as a commercial bay shrimper, but 7,500 people in Texas still do, and most of them at one time or another depend on the Colorado’s influence for their livelihood. More and more, though, the area relies on tourists, many of whom visit because of the sport fishing or the birds—again, because of the Colorado.
Finally the river merges with the Gulf. Last March I drove down Texas Highway 60 toward the Matagorda Peninsula. When I reached the shoreline, I found an eerie dead forest, covered in rotting seaweed. Up and down the sandy beaches were hundreds of trees, branches, and logs, gnarled into fantastic shapes. It was a little while before I realized that the strange decorations were the work of the storm that had hit the Hill Country a few weeks before. I was looking at flood debris, washed back up on shore by the tides. The Gulf had left it there, in one last word of testimony to the extraordinary force of water.