Water and Drought
Aside from weather, water is probably the most-discussed topic in Texas (and no wonder, as the two are inextricably linked). Disputes over water—where it comes from, how much we charge for it, who gets it—concern everyone from the governor and the legislature to farmers, ranchers, civilians, environmental groups, and corporations looking to profit off of it. It’s a topic so important that in 2012, after a severe dry spell left the majority of the state in exceptional drought, we dedicated an entire issue that traced the state’s history with water back four thousand years and attempted to look forward to the uncertain future of the resource.
Much of that future hinges on a massive tome dubbed “the water plan.” In 2007, the Texas Water Development Board published a 300-plus page plan, which comes out every five years, that proposes various solutions to keep water flowing to taps. But each region faces its own geographic, climatic, political, and financial issues with implementing the plans, as S.C. Gwynne explained in his 2008 story on the plan.
Texas water law boils down to surface water versus groundwater. Surface water—rivers, lakes, creeks, and streams—is state property; groundwater, meaning aquifers, belongs to the landowners, who are awarded something called the “right of capture.” In other words—specifically, Joe Nick Patoski’s—as long as an individual owns the land above the water, “he can pump as much as he wishes and sell it to whoever wants it, wherever they are, no matter if he dries up his own water and his neighbors’ along with it.”
The surface water fork of the law is no less contentious. During the massive drought of the fifties, state officials, who are in charge of granting Texans access to surface water, realized they had issued more permits than there was water, spawning a major legal battle.
The scars of that drought and many others that followed can be seen in the state’s deserted ranchland and in the ballooning urban centers to which those ranchers fled. For a population projected to double in the next fifty years while it loses eighteen percent of its ground and surface water supply, working for a livelihood that depends entirely on water, such as ranching or farming, is dangerous.
Particularly affected by the drought was the piece of that population residing in the Texas Hill Country and reliant on the area’s groundwater. Beneath them lies the Edwards Aquifer, a limestone sponge filled with rainwater from the past several thousand years. Al Reinert describes the way “the gentle ripples and sudden little valleys of the land’s surface are reflected underground in the veins and hollows” of the aquifer; the cool, clear water “trapped between a bedrock floor and a ceiling of impermeable Del Rio clay”; and the strange creatures, like the eyeless catfish, that “have survived and evolved in secrecy for eons.”
Another vital aquifer, the Ogallala, serves as a wellspring for the economy in the rain-deprived Panhandle. According to Helen Thorpe, underlying the battle for water in the Ogallala Aquifer is uneasiness about the state’s changing identity—the dwindling sense of a “more innocent, agrarian past,” and “the friction of shifting demographics.”
The history of water in Texas is one colored by great strife but also by great ingenuity. Scientists and researchers scramble to develop ways to conserve and preserve our water sources, from capturing rainwater and creating more efficient infrastructure to researching how to cheaply desalinate sea water.
Texas’s population continues to grow, creating a thirstier and thirstier state. During the Eighty-third Legislature, lawmakers responded to this expanding need for the precious life source by approving legislation that could spending up to $2 billion on water-supply projects around the state. But funding proposals like new reservoirs and pipelines isn’t a sure thing; voters still need to approve the price tag in November.
Sandbranch Is Yet Another Poor, Black Community Without Clean Water
They’ve been without clean water for decades. How is this still the case in 2016?
The Problems With “100-Year Floods”
They seem to happen a lot more often than once a century, for one thing.
Here’s How Much Water Has Fallen Over Texas
In the month of May alone, enough rain fell on Texas to cover the state in eight inches of water.
A Herd of Central Texas Cows Braved Friday’s Floodwaters
In the midst of a storm that brought heavy rains and flash flooding to parts of Central Texas, a herd of cattle was swept away from their pasture.
The Promise of Thunder
When you live in the desert, waiting for rain requires almost irrational optimism. And maybe a curse word or two.
5 Ways Texas A&M Improves Water
Texas A&M researches and students continue to address the many water issues facing our state, nation and world. Click here to watch the video!
This Land Is Your Land, Until Dallas Needs It
How a big chunk of East Texas might end up underwater to keep Dallas swimming in growth potential.
The Effluent Society
A hellish drought has forced Wichita Falls to embrace a radical method of conservation: drinking treated toilet water.
Below the Surface
The Legislature was looking in the wrong place when it tried to solve the state’s water crisis.
The Never-Ending Drought and What Texas Plans to Do About It
Remember the 2012 Water Plan? Now it’s being discussed in legislature. We’ll bring you up to speed.
Life by the Drop: A Special Report on Drought, Water, and the Future of Texas
TEXAS MONTHLY partnered with StateImpact Texas and KUT News to take a close look at how the state can manage a growing population amid a shrinking water supply. Listen to reports from NPR’s John Burnett, Texas state photographer Wyman Meinzer, and more audio and online reports.
As much as anything, the Texas economic miracle depends on water. Lots of water. So what are all those power plants, refineries, and factories going to do as the state gets drier and drier and drier?
The future is likely going to require us to move large amounts of water from wet but sparsely populated places (a.k.a. East Texas) to thirsty, booming cities. Good thing there’s a plan for that. There is a plan, right?
Between Hell and Texas
Over the past year, state photographer Wyman Meinzer has roamed the Big Empty, documenting the drought’s toll. Will he ever take another pretty picture?
When the Sky Ran Dry
Bad as the current drought is, it has yet to match the most arid spell in Texas history. Nearly two dozen survivors of the fifties drought remember the time it never rained.
The Writing on the Wall
The Lower Pecos River rock paintings were created four thousand years ago by a long-forgotten people. But their apparent message may be as useful today as it was then: Follow the water.
The Truth About Texas: Water = Life
As last year’s historic drought reminded us, Texas has always lived life by the drop, just a few dry years away from a serious crisis. With our population expected to nearly double over the next fifty years, this situation is about to become more, not less, challenging. This month we look at the past, present, and future of water and drought in Texas and explore the solutions that give us hope.
Boone Pickens Wants To Sell You His Water
And you’re going to need it, eventually, since Texas’ most precious natural resource is being depleted at an alarming rate. His plan is to pump vast amounts from his land in the Panhandle and pipe it to parched cities like El Paso and San Antonio—for a hefty price, of course. But other powerful interests have the same idea. Let the battle begin.
Texas Trees Hit Hard By Drought In 2011
More than 300 million trees died in Texas in 2011 due to extreme drought conditions
A Grain of Doubt
For more than 75 years, rice farmers in Matagorda County and elsewhere along the Gulf have shared the waters of the Colorado River with urban residents in the Hill Country. But with city centers booming and an almost-certain drought ahead, the state is being forced to choose between a water-intensive crop and a water-intensive population.
The Last Drop
Texas has the country’s most precise state water plan. So how is it that every one of our major cities is still on track to run dry in the next fifty years?
When the City of Marshall wanted to pump millions of gallons of water out of Caddo Lake and sell them to the highest bidder, the state said, “Sure.” Residents of Karnack, Uncertain, and other tiny northeast Texas towns said, “Hell, no.” Guess who prevailed (for now)?
The War for the Colorado
Battles over the river’s precious waters are pulling in everyone from pecan growers in Central Texas to shrimpers in Matagorda Bay, not to mention thirsty cities like San Antonio and Corpus Christi. Who will be left high and dry?
From water rationing to stricken crops, the current drought may be as devastating as the one in the early fifties—the time it never rained.
Trans-Pecos ranchers grapple with El Paso over the West’s most valuable resource.
Dust to Dust
The cattle are dying, the grass is gone, the ranchers are selling their land. The center of Texas is in a drought that may be the worst in a hundred years.