Texas in the Rearview Mirror


In Central Texas, the March rains brought with them the bluebonnets. Reservoirs are refilling, and the immediacy of the water crisis in these parts is subsiding. Not so in Maverick County on the border, which hasn’t seen bluebonnets since 1987, the last year with a good rain, according to rancher Jerrill Nowlin.

Through wide swaths of rural Texas, a catastrophic drought and fierce competition for water with thirsty cities is choking off a way of life that once defined us. For the past several years, cattlemen have been selling livestock early to cope with the lack of food and water. Hay prices have skyrocketed. The average rancher in Texas is 57 years old, and while many are dropping out, a younger generation is not replenishing the ranks as it once did. Where aquifers used to brim and anyone with land and a little money could become a farmer, today enormous capital is required to install expensive computerized irrigation systems to husband the scarce resource. An overwhelmingly Anglo rural way of life, marked by the rhythms of seasonal agriculture and cowboy culture, is changing in the face of new realities.

This issue of the Observer is a marker of sorts on the road to a new Texas. In our cover story, “There’s Not Enough,” we examine some of the impacts wrought by the drought on rural agriculture. There have been many dry spells, but this one is different. Beneath it lies that cold reality that Texas—plentiful rains or not—is running out of water as aquifers shrink.

As usual, policymakers cannot quite muster a solution. In “The Lege Tries Some Dam Planning,” Forrest Wilder provides a front-line report on efforts to safeguard water for the environment—to keep rivers and streams flowing into our bays and estuaries—even as engineers and developers insist that more nature-destroying reservoirs are the answer.

While Texas is growing, its small towns are dying. Among those on the cusp of extinction is Archer City, made famous by Larry McMurtry, as contributor Julia Robb explains in our Afterword, “The Last Picture Show, For Real.”

As the countryside empties and cities swell, clashes between environmentalists and developers will only heighten. The dynamics of those fights are captured in a new film, The Unforeseen, which writer Josh Rosenblatt explores in “Butterflies and Spiderwebs.” Austin filmmaker Laura Dunn’s documentary on the decades-long battle over preserving iconic Barton Springs has rankled some environmentalists because the film tells the story through the eyes of Gary Bradley, the bankrupt Austin developer that many blame for the springs’ woes.

It is telling that Bradley fled the harsh environment of West Texas, where “you can’t win if you’re a farmer,” he says, to pursue wealth and development in Austin. Dunn sees Bradley’s rise and fall “as a symbol of the American dream and how false it is in many respects.”

False, in many respects, is the notion that Texas will be able to continue doing business in the fashion to which we have become accustomed. These markers point to a new way, and we’re headed there ready or not. Unfortunately, the leadership at the state Capitol required to make the transition a successful one is still lacking, as is apparent from Dave Mann’s “What Hawkins Knew.” Mann explains how state leaders in the thrall of a misguided ideology squandered at least $100 million in taxpayer dollars and cheated hundreds of thousands of needy Texans out of benefits. Convinced that the private sector is always best, state officials ignored repeated warnings, and as of yet, there has been no accountability for their actions.