Epic scorching drought testing Texas' ways

Massive droughts caused by wildfires in Texas have ravaged the environment, incited a tug of war for available water, and fundamentally changed the way of life for the state’s millions of residents.

Photos by Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
A young cowboy sized up livestock at a Navasota, Texas, cattle auction on Sept. 9. The state’s herd has dwindled to a historic low.

The onset of a Dust Bowl-like drought has forced 25 million Texans to go beyond questioning whether to turn on the sprinklers.

As massive wildfires sully the air over Houston and Austin, and as ranchers sell off cattle to prevent mass starvation of their herds, the unfolding environmental crisis in Texas is changing everyday patterns of life – and even causing some to reconsider the Lone Star State's famous low-tax, react-as-you-go political philosophy.

Pitted hardest against each other are cities and agricultural interests, the ranchers and farmers who use 60 percent of the water and whose water rights help them to maintain their slipping grip on the land and political power.

As the drought has deepened over the summer, so has unease among Texans about what's being done, or not being done, to cope with it.

"We're scared to death," says Kerry Williams, city secretary for Llano (pop. 3,000), where charcoal barbecuing – the essence of Texas cuisine – is outlawed because of fire risk. "No one has any clue what anybody is going to do," she says, not only about water used for recreation but also for drinking.

The anxiety is as intrusive as drifting wildfire haze. Prayers for rain have not been answered – at least not yet. At the same time, Republican Gov. Rick Perry, a presidential aspirant, is holding up his state as a model for American growth and rugged self-determination, even as many residents hope for an infusion of federal aid.

"Texans, if you look back through history, have always been able to deal with calamity, and that's still true," says Richard Verrone, a historian at Texas Tech in Lubbock. "But unless you see it firsthand, it's hard to imagine the complete losses that are taking away livelihoods and hurting families not just now, but potentially for a couple of generations."

The drought has been, in a word, hellish. Millions of trees are dying, does are abandoning fawns to save themselves, cotton yields have been halved, and Texas cattle herds are at an all-time low. Its effects may yet be felt far from Texas: The price of socks is likely to rise because of low cotton yields, and beef prices in two years may overreach the average family's budget, economists say.

A Pacific-based La Niña system that placed a dome of high pressure over Texas has meant a string of 100-degree days and little to no rain – the parched land further buffeted by unusually high winds. Houston has received only 10 inches of rain this year compared with its usual 54 inches, on track to beat the annual rainwater low of 17 inches set in 1917.

True, World War II-style water rationing has brought residents closer in places like Llano, unified in desperation over the trickle of the Llano River. But more often the drought, which many forecasters say will last at least into next year, is sparking conflict between communities and constituencies.

In Houston, poor neighborhoods are complaining that repairs to exploding water mains – twisted apart by cracked soil – are being fast-tracked in wealthier areas of the city.

On Lake Conroe, fishing guides such as Keith Purifoy can't find paying cus-tomers because parched Houston to the south is drawing the water down by half a foot a week, leaving some bass boats hitting stumps at full speed.

As an example of previously well-laid drought plans, Houston owns two-thirds of Lake Conroe as a backup source for drinking water. But now the recreational economy that cropped up on the shallow lake is in a spiral. Real estate values are dropping along with the lake level, and lakeshore homeowners are paying dock fees to the river authority even though they can't get their boats in the water.

Water restrictions are in effect in 800 communities, including San Antonio and Dallas – but Texas has 6,386 cities and towns. That means that while many Texans buckle down, others are letting spigots flow. Even the state government itself is at odds over conservation, continuing to fine businesses that refuse to water their gravel access roads to hold down dust.

"There was an article a couple of weeks ago about towns just now going to twice-a-week lawn watering, and it's like, 'Come on,' " says Finley DeGraffenried, city manager in Llano.

The drought has led some water projects to be fast-tracked, including exploration of desalination plants near Galveston and completion of a $237 million pipeline from Lake Alan Henry to Lubbock. Llano recently put $100,000 into conservation efforts and possible new wells.

But the drought is testing Texas' model of local control over water, says Melanie Callahan, interim executive administrator of the Texas Water Development Board in Austin. There's more interest now in balancing that local control with regional or statewide coordination of water policy.

"Local areas know their needs better than anyone else, but you're still going to have issues where some people are going to have more water than others, which then requires coordination," she says. "It's going to be interesting as we move forward to see how it all plays out."

Some argue that model needs to change.

"The law basically says you can pump whatever you want that's beneath your property, which is an extremely poor model of water resources planning," says hydrologist Paul Hudak at the University of North Texas in Denton. Because of the drought, "there's going to be more and more emphasis on trying to transfer water between parts of the state. But the entire state is suffering right now, so where do you get it?"

"It's a Catch-22," adds Travis Miller, a soil and crop sciences professor at Texas A&M University in College Station. "If you use the water for urban areas, you don't have an economy in rural areas."

Meanwhile, ranchers are coming to auction "downright depressed, having to take animals off land that's had cattle on it for 100 years," says Greg Goudeau, owner of the Navasota Livestock Auction. Among those forced to sell calves recently was Montgomery County rancher Marilyn Bettes, who says she believes God is not punishing Texas, but rather humbling it. "People are wondering if we can really get over this. It's just one thing after another," she says. "It's almost more than we can handle right now."

The drought has put the ruggedly individualistic state in the awkward position of demanding quick and massive help from US taxpayers. Federal aid will offset most of the $5.2 billion in agricultural losses and $250 million in wildfire damages and firefighting costs.

Wildfire-stricken areas of central Texas have seen population grow by at least 30 percent in the past decade, much of it in wooded subdivisions where at least 2,500 homes burned this summer. Meanwhile, state cuts to wildland firefighting budgets left Texas scrambling to contain the fires and to keep aging equipment running.

The contradiction between reliance on federal aid and pride in being fiercely independent barely registers for most Texans. But it highlights a broader debate in a country struggling to achieve a sustainable balance among budget cutting, tax relief, and the benefits of federal cost-sharing, all amid a moribund national economy and rat-a-tat strikes of disasters draining US relief coffers.

"Texas has state and local tax rates at 70 percent of the national average, so what that must necessarily mean is that you're underfunding almost everything," says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and the author of the upcoming book "Lone Star Tarnished." "When you get historic wildfires [and] you have not invested in rural fire resources over the years to have them ready to go, you're backing and filling. And the normal first course of action is to race to the Red River and shake your fist toward Washington. [But because] the state hasn't funded many of its programs, crisis strikes very easily in Texas."

That's not to say Lone Star conservatives bear all the blame. Environmental groups are partly responsible for stopping new reservoirs and pipelines, notes Mr. Miller at Texas A&M.

The 1950s Texas drought sparked a population shift from rural to urban areas. The long-term effect of this drought on Texas will depend on its longevity.

"The problem with any drought is you don't know when the end of it is," says Miller.

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