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JERRILL Nowt 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” GEORGE BYERS, 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.” ALL PHOTOS BY STEVE SATTERWHITE 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. “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.” APRIL 6, 2007 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 7