“Why worry? they said. It would rain this fall. It always had. But it didn’t. And many a boy would become a man before the land was green again.” —The Time It Never Rained
Elmer Kelton’s wise old novel contains many steely truths. One is that each generation forgets, and must relearn, the same harsh lessons about drought in Texas.
Drought is a cruel mistress. One day it’s raining and the next it’s not. The land hardens and the skies clam up. It is a slow-motion natural disaster. The drought from 1947 to 1957, officially still the worst in Texas’ recorded history, was so drawn out that the West Texas farmers and ranchers vividly portrayed in Kelton’s book wondered if it might never rain, really rain, again.
But of course it did. It always does. Things return to normal: Streams begin flowing, crops flourish and water wells start producing again. Droughts are by definition deviations from the norm. Whatever goes down must come back up. Right?
That’s a comforting thought in times like these, when each day brings the same staggering sameness and freshly demolished heat and rainfall records.
However, it’s time to face an inconvenient truth: This drought, now on record as the second-worst in Texas history and less than a year old, may signal a new normal. What we call drought today may become simply average. If scientists are right, our future in Texas is going to be hotter, drier and brutish. Climate change is expected to dry out the American Southwest dramatically during the next few decades. Although the current drought is largely the product of La Niña, it’s also likely been worsened by a couple degrees of warming during the past century.
We know that Texas has gone through “megadroughts” in the past. Tree-ring data indicate that drought has visited Texas in brutal 30- to 40-year stretches a number of times in the past 500 years. Such climatic jolts can have devastating effects. A study published earlier this year by a team at the University of Arkansas links long stretches of hot, dry weather in Central America to the downfall of the Toltec and Aztec civilizations.
What happened before can happen again. Global warming is more or less ensuring that Texas will become desert-like.
As a society, we are not prepared for a megadrought, much less permanently dry conditions. Unlike Kelton’s Texas of the 1950s, this state is no longer an ag-based, rural place. It’s urban and suburban, and in many areas we use water like it’s an infinite resource. The so-called Texas Miracle economy, of which Rick Perry boasts, floats on an ocean of cheap, abundant water.
So it says something about our governor, and our political system, that the collective response to drought has been, “Let God sort it out.”
“I think it’s time for us to just hand it over to God, and say, ‘God: You’re going to have to fix this,’” Perry said in May, shortly after he proclaimed his fruitless Days of Prayer for Rain.
Prayer is not policy. Yet Texas’ political and business elite prefer to pretend that humans have no effect on the climate. Perry is a global-warming denier, who has said he thinks the planet has been “experiencing a cooling trend.”
Perhaps worse, he’s done nothing to overhaul a water-supply system based on the wobbly notion that it can’t get worse than the drought of record of the ’50s.
It has and it will.
I know how hard it is to accept. As someone who loves water, especially the Hill Country’s spring-fed creeks and rivers, I find the thought of Texas turning into a desert heartbreaking. But the magical thinking has got to stop. Take for example the drought-stricken West Texas town of Robert Lee, a case study in what the future holds. The nearby E.V. Spence reservoir, the town’s water source, has been drying up for decades and is now 99 percent empty. Robert Lee is under severe water rationing and many residents worry the town is doomed. Sometime early next year Robert Lee will run out of water.
“I can’t speak for the people,” the town’s mayor told the San Antonio Express-News recently. “But we have years of abundant rain, years of average rain, years when rain is short. I don’t think it’s global warming or God’s wrath. It’s just a cycle.”
Hope is a powerful and beautiful thing. But blind faith will make fools of us all.