Portrait Of A Drought: Finding Water Where It Ain’t

Photo: Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

by Peyton Fleming

I’m on a bus driving across West Texas and all appears well. Miles and miles of white-speckled cotton fields line both sides of the road. Splotches of green grassland are a welcome sign from last year’s devastating drought. Dozens of giant wind turbines churn away far off in the distance.

But appearances are deceiving.

West Texas is on the front lines of a changing climate, and scarce water is the most obvious symptom. Everyone – ranchers, farmers, water engineers – is talking about it.

A cyclone of hotter temperatures, more people, water-sapping cotton farming and a devastating 2011 drought have crippled groundwater supplies. And, though the drought has lifted, West Texans are being forced to change their ways like never before.

“It’s quite emotional today,” said Jim Conkwright, general manager of the High Plains Underground Conservation Water District #1, headquartered in Lubbock.

Conkwright is referring to parched conditions across much of the vast Ogallala Aquifer, which have forced first-ever limits on how much water farmers can pump from their wells. This year’s limit is 21 inches per acre per year; in 2014, it drops to 18 inches.

Adding salt to the wound, farmers are being required to install water meters to ensure they don’t exceed  their limits. “These are dirty words,” Conkwright said, of the new rules. “This is a very very hot topic. It may result in board members being unseated.”

Farmers aren’t the only ones being affected by the new norm of drier, hotter weather in this historically arid region.

Ranchers at Koch Industries’ Matador Ranch – owned by climate contrarians the Koch Brothers – cut their cattle herd in half and are using a new more resilient grass seed – instead of native grass – on several thousand acres of the 130,000-acre ranch. Ranch managers attribute the changes more to the vicissitudes of changing weather, not to a warming planet.

The City of Lubbock saw one of its key water reservoirs dry up. “Lake Meredith is dead,”  said City Engineer Wood Franklin, where customers have been living for many months under Stage Two drought conditions which limit lawn watering to once a week.

The stringent restrictions were lifted in August only after the city activated a new reservoir, Lake Alan Henry, that took several decades to build at a cost of $220 million.

Investors smell opportunity too – in the form of lucrative water rights.

Last year, T. Boone Pickens and his Mesa Water Inc. sold the water rights beneath 211,000 acres – atop the Ogallala Aquifer – for over $100 million to the Canadian River Municipal Water Authority, which serves 11 communities, including Amarillo and Lubbock. Pickens tried selling to Dallas for a higher price, but the $3 billion pipeline was too costly.

“Just as soon as it rained, you couldn’t get ’em on the phone,” Pickens told the Associated Press, of his negotiations last June with Dallas. “You were always waiting for another drought to start negotiations again.”

The fact that the drought has abated is putting the region’s handling of the water crisis at a crossroads.

Many, like Lubbock’s water engineers, argue for keeping the pedal down on tough water conservation measures. Lubbock’s Water Resources Director Aubrey Spear expressed disappointment that the Stage Two drought restrictions, which helped cut water use by about 25 percent, were lifted so quickly.

“Water conservation is something we’ll want to stress continuously, not just during droughts,” Spear said.

Conkwright expressed similar disappointment that a two-year moratorium is in place for assessing civil penalties against farmers who don’t install water meters and report their water use. “It sends the wrong signal,” he said.

As for West Texas farming in the future, he says, “dry-land farming.”

Peyton Fleming, Strategic Communications Director at Ceres, is attending the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) annual conference in Lubbock, Texas. This piece was originally published at Ceres and was reprinted with permission.


7 Responses to Portrait Of A Drought: Finding Water Where It Ain’t

  1. Ozonator says:

    You mean to say the Keystone pipeline is not to steal water from Canada or the Great Lakes to help poor farmers and ranchers suffering under extremist leaders? “Oklahoma dust storm causes injury wrecks, highway closures” (BY SILAS ALLEN and MATT DINGER;, 10/18/12).

  2. Merrelyn Emery says:

    I know this drought comes as a shock to those who have enjoyed their rich bounteous land, and squandered it at will, but seriously folks, let me know when you are not allowed to use potable water for anything but limited domestic use (washing people and drinking only) for years on end, ME

  3. Kim Feil says:

    I live at ground zero for urban drilling. We have about 60 padsites in our 99 sq mile town here in Arlington TX. We had a drill spill in Lake Arlington, our drinking source, a couple of years ago and have had maybe a dozen emission events over the last couple of years that I am aware of.

    Industry articles on recycling flowback water has issues from not being economical, to making the compressors work harder to re-frack with this stuff. I live, breathe and blog in BarnettShaleHell soon to be unlivable when the eventual migration from gas and injection wells and when keystone comes in and has their “anomoly” leaks.

  4. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    By then we’d be well down the road of self-induced genocide. It’s collective insanity, is it not?
    “Try to imagine a world with nine billion people and 40% fewer calories.” _Bill McKibben.
    To turn a phrase: Water, water everywhere, but not a drop for agriculture.

  5. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Dennis, the Texas drought is quite moderate by African and Australian standards and can be accommodated by a sensible regime of allocations and restrictions. Given the documented response by some Texans, this will be difficult and doesn’t hold much hope for the future, ME

  6. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    Merrelyn, I grew up in a rural area of our upper mid-west. I worked on farms as a youngster, and married a farmer’s daughter. Farms in this part of the country usually had “field tiles” buried a few feet underground in the lower parts of their fields. The tiles would carry the runoff from excess rainfall in order to prevent flooding and crop damage. Oh how times have changed. I still live in the same part of the country, a few tens of miles from the Great Lakes, which I’m told is the largest fresh water supply on earth (not sure that includes the Antarctic Ice sheet). And I wonder how long before we start tapping into it for irrigation… to grow corn… to produce ethanol.

  7. Jim Baird says:

    Finding water where it are. In the only place it is accumulating – the ocean. 1. Convert ocean heat to productive energy using OTEC. (A carbon free constant source of energy). 2. Use some of the energy to convert liquid volume to gas by electrolysis. The resultant hydrogen is as much a water carrier as it is an energy carrier which can be used to produce ammonia or methanol all of which are non polluting replacements for hydrocarbons in the transportation sector. 3. Capture runoff before it enters the oceans or desalinate that which is already there for the use of the 9-10 billion people who will need it. (The deserts can sequester most of the water that would otherwise cause sea level rise and the irrigation of the deserts would sequester 10 gigatons of carbon a year whereas we are currently accumulating between 4.5 to 6.5 gigatons,) 4. Appropriately providing the water, food, fuel and fibre 9 billion need resolves the climate problem.