As the drought saps rural Texas, lawmakers confront a state that's running out of water
The March rains helped, no question. This time a year ago, 99.1 percent of Texas was officially in drought, classified as anywhere from abnormally to exceptionally dry. By late last month, that figure had fallen to 46 percent. The glass has edged past half full.
The red spot on the U.S. Drought Monitor map marking the driest piece of Texas has shrunk to include parts of just eight counties on the border near Del Rio. Hopeful headlines have sprouted in many newspapers, but if the drought has subsided, it certainly is not over.
“Drought is not dramatic,” says Bill Hyman, executive director of the Independent Cattlemen’s Association. “It’s like cancer. It’s a slow death.”
Whether the drought officially ends in any given part of the state this month or next, or next year, won’t fix the devastation left behind. It has been brutal on the land, the livestock, the people, and the economy. Last year’s drought-related agricultural losses—crops that didn’t grow, skinny cows sold cheaply and so on—were pegged at $4.1 billion by the Texas A&M Cooperative Extension service. That’s about one-quarter of Texas’ $16 billion agricultural industry. Cotton, the state’s biggest cash row crop, accounted for about $1 billion in losses. Almost a third of the 6.6 million acres planted didn’t make a crop.
Jim Selman, a 75-year-old cattle rancher, who works 3,000 acres near Gonzales, east of San Antonio, figures the drought has cost him $40,000. Like many ranchers, he’s thinking it might be time to quit. “Every time we have it thirsty, we lose cattlemen,” Hyman says. “People that were on the edge, that were considering getting out; that’s the last straw.”
Joe Alspaugh, a third-generation cotton farmer, has 5,000 acres near Slaton, southeast of Lubbock. In 30 years, he’s seen technology, better seed, and modern methods dramatically increase the amount of cotton he can squeeze from an acre. But without rain, or when fuel for the irrigation pumps gets too expensive, the cotton grows short, good for making jeans, perhaps, but not fine shirts. The value falls accordingly.
“Drought is part of business,” Alspaugh says. “But it sure wears on people’s hearts, souls, and bank accounts.”
The 20th century saw at least one serious drought in some part of Texas every decade. The 21st has opened the same way, but with a difference. Competition for water from growing cities and new industry has never been so intense. Water speculators are combing the state, trying to lock up supplies they can sell to the highest bidder. Aquifers underlying swaths of West Texas have been dropping for decades, and even plentiful rains cannot fill them fast enough to keep up with burgeoning demand. Texas farmers and ranchers use about 2.6 trillion gallons of aquifer water a year now, according to the state Water Development Board, mostly from the vast Ogallala Aquifer under the Panhandle and High Plains. The Ogallala’s output is expected to fall by more than half over the next 50 years or so. Texas cities will need roughly twice as much water over the same period, and they’ll be wanting some of what’s left underground.
In the long run, this drought signals the beginning of a distinct period of adjustment for Texas agriculture, according to those who watch the farm economy closely. In some places, as water simply becomes too expensive, herds will shrink, less land will be planted, and more ranches will be cut up and sold. “A lot of hard, heart-wrenching decisions were made around the dinner table,” in the past year, says Beverly Boyd, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Agriculture.
Those decisions, in turn, will ripple through rural Texas, sucking money from local economies. “Agriculture is the underlying engine that drives the economy of places like Lubbock, places like Amarillo, all of the smaller towns like Plainview or Lamesa or even hamlets like Lorenzo,” says Roger Haldenby, vice president of operations for Plains Cotton Growers Inc. in Lubbock. Less cotton harvested means less work for gins, truckers, and local businesses. Banks are left carrying iffy debts.
“I go into Slaton to buy auto parts for my eight farm trucks. We buy parts for our tractors, we buy fertilizer from the fertilizer dealer, and we buy seed from the seed dealer,” Alspaugh says. “Everything we buy comes through that small town, and in the rural Texas High Plains, what keeps these communities together is the farms.”
Jerry Nowlin, rancher, near Eagle Pass
“The cactus was dying at Christmas, and then in January we got some misty showers, and the cactus has perked up….We’ve got a few wild onions coming up, but they’re so low to the ground that the cows can’t even lick’ em off.”
At the epicenter of the state’s most severe, prolonged drought, rancher Jerrill Nowlin has watched the cattle disappear from Maverick County, which borders Mexico along the Rio Grande. “There’s no cattle hardly left in this country,” he says. “The Burr Ranch has 75,000 acres, basically 150 square miles … and there’s not a cow on it. The drought is main cause of that.
“The Cage Ranch sold out everything last spring except for some bulls. Then they got a little rain and may have restocked 10 percent, but not much.”
Nowlin speaks not of cattle, but of “cow units,” meaning a mother and her calf. He used to run 300 units on his land. Now he’s down to about 25. Between 30 and 40 acres used to yield enough grass to feed one unit. “Now we’re down to one cow unit for 400 acres, and they’re starving to death,” he says. “I know of one 400-acre pasture around where the farmer had nothing on it, but a horse got stuck in there and starved to death. It’s bad.”
Wells would be pointless in most of this country, so water comes from rainfall trapped in tanks, or a canal from the Rio Grande, which mainly feeds irrigated crops. The last good year for water Nowlin can remember was 1987, and the bluebonnets haven’t bloomed since.
George Evers, cowboy and rancher, Eagle Pass
“We had a witcher out on the place, supposed to be one of the best, out of Uvalde. He witched five places for us, in the sandy loam area out past the other wells, and we thought, ‘Oh boy!’ because we needed the water on that end of the ranch. Well, we got a driller and we drilled and drilled, and we hit coal, but we never got any water.”
“We rely on the rain, and if you don’t have rain, you’re out of business, you know,” says George Evers, who’s worked on the sprawling Chittim Ranch near Eagle Pass, the Maverick County seat, for 40 years. “Right now, I have tanks that are as low or lower than I’ve seen them in 40 years,” he says. “We are devastated out here.”
Local ranchers and farmers pitched in with the government to pay for cloud seeding the last three years, but nothing came of it.
Deer hunters are saving the economy, Nowlin says, because they’ll pay top dollar for hunting leases.
“There is no cattle future here; it’s a thing of the past,” Nowlin says. “Everything’s in such bad shape that it would take two to three years of above-average rain to have anything. If it started raining right now, we couldn’t restock for two or three years. You’d have a lot of noxious grasses come back, and bad weeds and stuff.”
Ronnie Jordan, cotton farmer, near Brownfield
“For the foreseeable future, we’re gonna continue to have a water problem. It’s been a trend for the last 30 years. The water level of the aquifer has done nothing but go down, and there’s not anything that’s gonna make that turn around.”
He’s 44, a third-generation farmer. Cotton mostly, and some peanuts, on 2,800 acres near Brownfield, southwest of Lubbock. Ronnie Jordan’s fortunes, like those of his father and grandfather, rise and fall with the aquifer that lies beneath the South Plains. Lately it’s just been falling. Scant rain has meant more need to pump, and when everyone pumps, it gets harder and harder for the aquifer to replenish itself.
The problem, when you farm, is the point of no return, times when the only thing that makes less sense than going on is stopping. “It’s getting more and more costly to pump the water out of the ground. Irrigation is a big expense, especially on a year like last year where you turn the pivots on, and you just don’t turn them off. Once you start, you commit yourself to that expense; it doesn’t make sense to water for a month or month and a half, and then go, ‘Man, I can’t do this,’ and turn the thing off—because you’ve already got an investment out there,” Jordan says. “What are you gonna do? That’s like going and buying something and working on an idea, and then half way through it, after you’ve spent $30,000 or so, go, ‘Well, I don’t think I wanna do this anymore.’ You’d have to be nuts.”
Jordan’s trying not to drill any more wells, to figure out how to use what water he can get more efficiently. He waters fewer acres and uses stingier equipment than his father did.
“I mean there’s only so much water there, and if you just keep drilling wells, a lot of times what you’re doing is hurting the guy down the stream from you,” he says. “You’re taking his water before he even gets it. So I don’t think that drilling more wells is the answer.
“It’s a weeding out process … we’re going through a period of adjustment, just nature’s way of making things work,” he says. “If farming was an easy business, everybody would be doing it—everybody likes to work for themselves—but it’s not an easy business. Nowadays in ranching, farming, any kind of agricultural business, you have to be a very good business man because it’s pretty cut and dry, especially when it’s been dry like this.”
Billy Easter, rancher, Wichita Falls
“We’re right on the edge; we’re hoping that we’re breaking that dry pattern, hoping that the next seven or eight years, or 10, will be wetter than normal. But, if the big water table has been going down since the 1950s, then 10 years of wetter than normal seasons will not fix that problem—right?”
Since he bought a cattle sale barn near his own 2,000 acre ranch in 1998, Billy Easter has been watching the drought play out from both ends. With no groundwater to tap under his land, he’s struggled to maintain his herd. But he’s made money selling off cattle for other ranchers. “We get calls from out-of-state buyers who show up like vultures when they hear ‘drought,'” he says. “And we’re looking everywhere for those vultures to come in here and buy these cows.”
The heavy sell-off started in 2000, in part because of drought, in part because North Texas ranchers realized that competition for water is becoming fiercer and they need to switch to hardier animals.
“By 2000 we were running lots and lots of cows—herd reduction type stuff,” he says. “But during that period of time, we were also making adjustments in the cattle industry in this part of the world, changing from Brahma-cross cattle to English-cross cattle—the blacks, the black baldies, the Charolais—upgrading the herds to cows that were more rugged, that could take care of themselves. I have seen this kind of transition since I’ve had the cattle auction, and it has intensified because of this long period of intermittent drought. Generally, from 1996 on, it has just gotten drier and drier—a drier than normal, long-term weather pattern.”
The drought has been fickle, inflicting hardship or showering down plenty in random fashion. “Around here, we’ve been on and off the drought map for years, but what’s been odd is that when we were getting some good rains a year ago, there were spots around north of Vernon and Electra, and down by Loving and Graham, that just could not buy a rain—they just kept getting worse and worse and worse. … Even just in this county, you can talk to one neighbor who says, “I’m good,” and the next guy says, ‘I’m dying over here.'”
Johnny Horton, rancher, near Quanah
“The water situation around here has been nip and tuck since 1996. Mostly, we depend upon run-off water, and it just hasn’t rained enough for it to run off.”
The ranch, at the eastern base of the Panhandle, has been in the family since the late 1800s. It’s large enough for Johnny Horton to fight the drought by rotating his cattle from field to field. “We put cattle on a given pasture and let them graze off about half the growth of the natural grasses, and that growth will vary wildly depending upon our moisture; then we get them off that pasture, and let it rest for about a year before it is grazed again,” he says. “The system has been a lifesaver.”
Still, when Horton harvests grass, he’s only ending up with about half the number of hay bales he used to produce.
Bill Swaringen, irrigation man, Brownfield
“The farmers have learned. Anytime you put them in a bind, they are going to figure out a solution. Like Forrest says, it’s a period of adjustment.”
For almost half a century, Bill Swaringen has been helping farmers and ranchers pump water from beneath the Texas plains. For almost half that time, he’s had to work harder and smarter to tap less and less of it.
Beneath the story of this century’s drought lies a more disturbing one for irrigation men like Swaringen and Forrest Hoch. With growing cities and, of late, a rejuvenated oil industry, demand for water is surging. Even when rainfall is good, or just average, the aquifers cannot possibly keep up. Someday people will look back on these days and remember that water was plentiful.
“Our aquifer is steadily just kind of declining, holding on pretty close,” Hoch says. “We’re losing some water each year, you know. We keep punching more holes, and to me that’s like sticking more straws in the bucket, you know.”
Forrest Hoch, irrigation man, Brownield
“Unless we figure out a way to divert the Mississippi over here, you know, at some point we’ve got to go to more drought tolerant crops.”
A normal well around Brownfield used to yield about 500 gallons of water a minute,”— Swaringen says. Now a good well might yield just 200. “If we still had half of the water we used to, that would be great,” Swaringen adds.
For farmers, survival means adaptation. Water half a circle instead of a whole one. Experiment with drip systems, like the Israelis use, to squeeze the most use from every drop. Use computers to control the pumps. Do anything you can to cut down on evaporation, because that can kill you. “Whatever comes, waterwise, we’ll be forced to adjust,” Hoch says.
Hoch figures his irrigation business is safe, if for no other reason than he’ll likely die before the water runs out. “I was just feeling my A&M ring,” he says, chuckling. “It’s just about worn out. I graduated in 1965, but you can’t read the 65 on it anymore; the numbers have been gone for several years.”
Mark McLaughlin, rancher, near Maryneal
“I buy rolls of hay, and I’m used to paying $25-35 a bale; now they don’t even smile when they ask you for $110 a roll.”
The distinction seems simple, but if you don’t get it, then Mark McLaughlin figures you’re not going to last as a rancher. The most important thing you own is land. Not cows.
“I own land, and that land produces vegetation that has no value. You’ve got to figure out a way to convert it into something that will sell, and the way you convert it is livestock,” says McLaughlin, who’s pushing 80. “And you can choose your livestock; you could have whitetail deer, exotic animals, sheep, goats, or cattle—or camels, I guess. The 19th century pioneers made a mistake—they thought they owned livestock and that land was just a means of sustaining their livestock; their focus was wrong, and they ruined this country. They overgrazed it.”
During the past six years, as the rains did not come or came at the wrong time, or in the wrong place, McLaughlin thinned his herd and watched his 27,000 acres southwest of Abilene take the drought’s punishment.
“The cows have eaten all the grass. In a normal season, there’d be 6 inches of grass all over this land, everywhere,” he says. “You wouldn’t be able to see all of these rocks. Right now, the grass is probably 70-80 percent of what it should be.”
These days, McLaughlin’s using a bulldozer to pull out the water-wasting cedar and mesquite on his land. Then he’ll scatter native grass seeds, hope the land starts to come back, and remember an old rancher’s rule. “Do not fall in love with your cows.”
Steve Satterwhite is a photojournalist in Dallas. Richard Whittaker is a freelance writer in Austin.