The drought of ‘06.

The Houston Chronicle had a short article today about the ongoing drought that stretches across much of Texas. The writer attempted to gauge the economic impact of the drought; it is thought that the direct economic losses to farmers and ranchers could be as high as $4 billion, with a possible indirect impact on rural economies of as much as $8 billion in losses.

The National Drought Monitor indicates that most of south Texas currently falls into the worst drought categories: D3, which is severe drought, and D4, which is exceptional drought. In Quemado, along the Rio Grande River, it has pretty much stopped raining over the last two years. Our normal yearly rainfall averages about 22 inches. In 2005, we received about 14 inches of rain, with 7 ½ inches falling on a single day. So far, in 2006, we have had a total of approximately 4 inches of rain.

As one travels across this area, the impact is clearly visible. Cattle wander across brown pastureland, searching for any edible green vegetation. Corn plants that would normally be six feet tall struggle to attain a height of four feet and are arranged irregularly in the row due to many seeds failing to germinate last spring. There was simply no moisture in the soil to initiate the plant's life.

The long Texas summer is beginning to take a toll on some of the mature, native trees that have been growing for years near long abandoned farmsteads. One notices various red oaks and pine trees, which have been through earlier droughts in their sixty years of life, now turning brown from the top of the canopy downward, a sure sign that the tree's death is from a lack of water. A mature oak tree needs to absorb at least 50 gallons of water from the root zone each day to replace the water that has transpired from the leaves. There is simply not enough moisture in the soil today to keep the tree in balance.

Most of our extreme weather, such as flooding, hurricanes, and tornadoes, occurs over a short period of time, and the impact and loss from the storm can be quickly measured. Engineers can study the data, and propose solutions that will mitigate damage from future events. Droughts consist of endless sunny days, with bright blue skies. The damage accrues gradually. Each day begins with the hope that there will be some sign of incipient rainfall, and ends with the realization that there is no relief in sight. When the drought finally ends, there is often only the thought that it is a generational occurrence and not something that needs to be planned for and mitigated through some type of governmental action.

For the time being, our pecan crop is nourished by the waters that come to us from the Amistad Reservoir, by way of a canal system built in 1920. I always marvel at how the people of that time understood some of the vagaries of nature, and they formulated and executed a plan to provide water for agricultural and municipal use. The Maverick County Canal carries water to over 80,000 acres of farm and ranch land. Notably, the water flows by gravity, and thus there is no need for diesel fuel to pump this water. In an age of $3/gallon diesel, this turns out to be a very important consideration.

Over the past thirty years, a total of eight major new reservoirs have been constructed in Texas. These man made lakes hold between 181,000 acre feet (Joe Pool Lake) and 1.1 million acre feet (Richland-Chambers Reservoir). During this same period, the population of the state roughly doubled, from 12 million to 23 million inhabitants. Prior to 1976, there were approximately 28 major reservoirs constructed to provide water supplies for the state. These are all reservoirs that when full can store in excess of 250,000 acre-feet of water. Of these older reservoirs, seven were 'super' reservoirs that can hold in excess of 1 million acre feet of water.

It is hard to look at this water supply data and not consider that the future water supply needs of Texas have been seriously neglected. Rather than have an ample supply of water today for municipal, industrial, and agricultural use, we have devolved to a near state of warfare over the existing sources of water. The large municipalities are looking to usurp limited ground water from areas that are increasingly distant from their citizens. In West Texas, there is a push to limit, and perhaps eliminate agricultural water usage. All across the state, private equity financiers are buying up existing water and riparian rights, with the intention of reselling the water to the highest bidder. The common thread to all of these actions seems to be that agriculture is an "inefficient" user of water resources, and that municipal development is the "highest and best" use of scarce water resources.

In the late 1950's, following a previous period of severe drought, Walter Prescott Webb, a noted scholar and author, and a group of scientists from the University of Texas proposed a massive public works program to capture and redistribute water from the high rainfall area of East Texas to the low rainfall area of South Texas. They proposed building a number of large reservoirs on the Neches, Trinity, Sabine, Brazos, Guadalupe and Nueces Rivers that would in essence store excess rainfall. The genius of the plan was to construct an intra-river canal that would connect all of these river systems. The canal would lie about 70 miles inland from the coast. The redistribution of water would not only allow for the growth of all the coastal cities, including Victoria and Corpus Christi, but it would also provide water for the irrigation of almost 1 million acres of Rio Grande Valley farmland.

As the drought ended, the will to spend a large sum of money for water capture and redistribution evaporated. Could such a project be built today? It seems unlikely, given the rise of environmental groups whose agenda does not fall neatly into the municipal, industrial or agricultural bucket. The argument most often heard from the environmental groups is that we need to "preserve natural systems as they are", or, in fact, to "reverse the effects of man's influence, and restore natural systems to their original, pristine state". It is hard to envision a single new reservoir construction project that the environmental groups would support. And yet, by failing to build new reservoirs, we are in effect undermining our future ability to produce food and fiber in the state.

Texas is unique among states in that it contains within its borders areas of abundant rainfall, and areas of moderate rainfall that are subject to occasional periods of drought. We need some forward looking citizens, like the pioneers of 1920, to push forward a grand, visionary plan to capture the abundant rain of the eastern part of the state, and make it available for the growth of the western part of the state. Most of us can readily see the havoc caused to our daily lives by an over reliance on foreign produced energy resources. The latest mantra of the WTO free-traders is that agricultural production needs to move to the less developed areas of the world, where food can be produced at lower cost. While this may have some validity in the short term, it fails to calculate and include the cost of deploying "the world's police force" to keep the supply lines open and to keep the food moving freely along international trade routes. Once these costs are factored in, foreign food, like foreign oil, will not be a "cheap" alternative. Our future, as a growing, vibrant economy, depends on us acting today to harness the abundant water resources that we have.

Written on Sunday, 13 August 2006 00:00 by Bob Ackerley

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