Page 19


TEXAS DROUGHT CONDITIONS According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, March 27, 2007 DO Abnormally Dry DI Drought Moderate BA D2 Drought Severe MI D3 Drought Extreme mansa unmans manna 11/1111111111 ananaN imaStah l b a an annassaninksiallif wananansanamarimisi imannannassairiat i r o osanan Vo l% FEATURE There’s Not Enough As the drought saps rural Texas, lawmakers confront a state that’s running out of water BY STEVE SATTERWHITE AND RICHARD WHITTAKER 11111 he 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 lossescrops that didn’t grow, skinny cows sold cheaply and so onwere 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 6 THE TEXAS OBSERVER APRIL 6, 2007 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.”