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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Big Thirst in West Texas

Air Date: Week of

Going into its third year, comparisons are being made between the depression era dustbowl and the big drought circa 1996 in western parts of Texas. Producer Sandy Tolan lets us hear from some of the old timers who are experiencing a sense of deja vu as cattle and crops die off in the relentless heat, and they dream of wet cool days.


CURWOOD: Recently the mayor of San Angelo, Texas, proclaimed a day of organized prayer. For rain. Hot, dry weather across much of the western and plains states and northern Mexico for the past 3 years has devastated the planting and livestock industries and brought new pressures to fragile landscapes and the aquifers beneath them. Living on Earth's Sandy Tolan recently traveled to West Texas, where many people are comparing this drought to the devastating dust bowl of the 1930's.

TOLAN: In West Texas people love to watch the sky.

McLEAISH: That's something we sure have a lot of is sky. There's not a lot of things to block our view. And the sky can be incredibly entertaining, to watch a dust storm roll in from the north when it's got a 3,000-foot ceiling on it and it looks like a giant red rolling wave just coming at you. Or watch the big thunderstorms roll in. The lightning can be just -- fantastic to watch, beautiful. This is the time of year we get those storms.

TOLAN: Ordinarily. But for the last 3 years, says K.T. McLeaish, longtime resident of the West Texas town of Odessa, there have been precious few thunderstorms to watch. Almost nothing but hot, dry winds and clear, sunny skies, unrelenting.

(Hot, sizzling sounds -- insects?)

McLEAISH: I think it's really starting to grate on people's nerves. Everybody's -- testy. I think there's a prevailing bad attitude right now. You hear it constantly no matter where you go, the minute you step out of the nice air conditioned car and you're hit with the wind or the dust or just the heat, and somebody's going to say God, I'm so tired of this. It's constant.

(Sizzling sounds continue. Weather announcer: "And it's not a pretty sight. Mostly sunny the next 2 days, 103, 104, Thursday. Friday, Saturday, Sunday, partly cloudy skies, 102, 101, 103, so get ready for a baker.")

McLEAISH: And the wind has been relentless. And of course with all the dryness and then it instantly kicks up the dust.

(Guitar and singer: "A dust storm hittin', it hit like thunder. It dusted us over and it covered us under...")

TOLAN: It's bad enough in town, but out on the land 3 years of this heat and wind and no rain has brought devastation. Nothing will grow on the dry land farms, which rely entirely on the rains. Some are lucky enough to have a little income from small oil wells on their land. Other dry land farmers are completely out of business, and much of the topsoil is blowing away.

(Singer continues: "So long, it's been good to know you. So long, it's been good to know you. So long...")

TOLAN: And now the drought is threatening even farmers who irrigate their fields from the underground aquifers.

CHEVRONT: I've lived here all my life and I've never seen it this bad.

TOLAN: In the West Texas farm belt around Seminole, where big farms produce truckloads of chilies, peanuts, vegetables, and bales and bales of cotton, Jud Chevront says his family's operation is in deep trouble.

CHEVRONT: Our livelihood's at stake. It's all we do. I've seen our yields go down the last 3 years.

TOLAN: Sitting in the back office of Seminole's John Deere dealer, Chevront lays out his financial woes. His dealer Paul Condit looks on in sympathy. No rains mean more farmers have to reach deeper and pump harder from the Ogallala Aquifer, the underground lake which stretches down to West Texas from way up in Nebraska. Chevront's spending an extra $40,000 a month on electricity to pump water, and he's already laid out half a million since last spring on new wells. Costs like this, he says, may drive his family out of business.

CHEVRONT: It's a disaster right now and -- I don't know what'll happen. Just trust in the future. I guess I'll make it some way or other. Very stressful right now; we just had our first child in December and -- wasn't a good time to bring one in, I don't think, but you know, he's a joy in our life right now. (Laughs) It's good to come home and see him.

(Running water in a stream)

TOLAN: And so while they pray hard, the farmers of Seminole keep pumping the hidden waters into their fields, and the great Ogallala Aquifer drains down.

(Running water continues)

CHEVRONT: We ain't had the rains so we've had to run the wells all the time. Didn't run the wells would pull the water table down, and nothing's replenished it. It's very low, the aquifer has dropped extremely where I live. Even some of my good wells, they're starting to pull air instead of water.

(Running water continues)

TOLAN: A few weeks ago some precipitation finally came, in the form of golf-ball-sized hail.

CHEVRONT: We was in the house. Electricity went off due to the lightening and can't see outside, knocked out my lights. But next morning we woke up and it had shredded. There wasn't a leaf of cotton. The banker's calling and he's wanting to know what's happening.

TOLAN: The hailstorm destroyed 200,000 acres around here. Some farmers say God is testing them. The drought, the increased drilling costs, the big hailstorm, and last year's boll weevil infestation. All these, says John Deere dealer Paul Condit, have plunged farmers closer to ruin.

CONDIT: There's a world of tension here. The bankers are as nervous as they can be, because in most cases they've already used all their money that they set up to make this crop. Their budget is just about run out. And the banks are stretched.

TOLAN: Condit sells more than $20 million worth of tractors and combines and cotton strippers every year. He finances the purchases, too, handling more loans than the local banks do. Forty million dollars worth at the moment. One friend says he's got more money than God, but Condit says even he's getting worried.

CONDIT: We're going to get stretched. I will have defaults. See, basically I'm on the back of all the paper. We're looking at all ways to cut back.

TOLAN: With the prospect of bankruptcy, brought in part by the drought and the draining of the aquifer, I asked Condit whether farmers here are thinking of ways to save water. Like lining the ditches with concrete or putting in drip irrigation. He says these are expensive solutions especially in lean times. And it seems these Texans aren't seeking a solution from within. Condit doesn't put much stock in conservation. He wants to find a way to get water from somewhere else. He wants a mega-project like a huge ditch to pump the Mississippi River 700 miles over to West Texas.

CONDIT: If we can go to the moon and get off and walk around on it and get back on and come back to Earth, we can certainly figure out some way to replenish these aquifers, because of the billions of gallons that's going out into the ocean of fresh water every day, every second.

(Singer: "And then I jumped in the river but the doggone river was dry. She's looong gooone and noooow I'm loooonesome...")

MAN: I've got tree ranches in Bakers County, and all of them is dry. I've got one up toward the Imperial. It's a powder house.

TOLAN: West Texas families have suffered through droughts before, but 100 miles south on the ranches around Fort Stockton there's no issue about conserving water. Here there's almost nothing to conserve. It's dry and brittle as whitewashed bones in the desert.

WOMAN: It's just like it's been sandpapered.

TOLAN: Like the farmers in Seminole, ranchers here seem to believe that Mother Nature may no longer provide what's necessary in the future. On a blazing afternoon, old time ranchers cool off in the territorial courthouse in Fort Stockton. They seem almost resigned that the drought, combined with government bureaucracy, is going to put them over the edge.

MAN: They're going to wake up here one of these days, and they're going to wonder where the steak is in New York City. They're not going to have it, believe me. They're going to wonder where the wool is to make their clothes. They're not going to have it.

WOMAN: I went through the depression and drought of the 30's and the 50's and I'm feeling pretty bad about my neighbors because that's an impossible situation the way I look at it.

MAN: Our family come here in 1906. My boy is the fifth generation here. And we've seen '29 Depression, '52 drought, and this drought here. We survived them all, but we don't know whether we're going to make this one.

(Singer: "You can see that dust storm comin'. The cloud look death like black. And through our mighty nation it left a dreadful track...")

TOLAN: The ranchers here say these are the worst times since the dust bowl days when great black waves of earth miles high and wide would blow across the plains and into every crack and cranny, every sealed jar, every pore.

(Singer: "It covered up our fences. It covered up our barns...")

TOLAN: Back then the government killed livestock because they were starving. Now the hungry cows are dying again.

MAN: The cows are all dying because they're eating too many mesquite beans and no grain and I've got mesquite poison, I've lost about 25, 30 head out of 160 cows up there this year. Don't know what I'm going to do with them.

WOMAN: Right now I have 8 baby calves that's on the bottle at home because their mothers died in this drought. I gave $1150 a piece for those mothers. So we ship them, we get 20 cents a pound.

(A gathering and music. Man: "Anybody can live through drought if prices are high, but very seldom are they. But this deal here, things hit both at the same time, the dry weather and the cattle market broke...")

TOLAN: Beneath ceiling fans in a hot, dry West Texas bar, a couple of ranchers explain they can't feed their cattle because the price of grain is too high. And they can't sell the cows because the price of beef is too low.

MAN: Hell, it's better to let it starve to death on the range because time you haul it to town and everything and they take their cut and you pay taxes on there, then you've got nothing left. You might as well be sleeping and hope it rains.

TOLAN: Skip Woodward pulls on a Marlboro, sips from a bottle of Bud, stares straight ahead. He knows leaving cows out where there's not enough grass is bad for the land.

WOODWARD: I've got some country that's overgrazed, and I sure don't believe in overgrazing any country but I've got some country right now that I've sure enough grazed down till there ain't no good left in it.

TOLAN: Overgrazing means the cows eat the plants right down to the roots. Then there's nothing to hold the soil in place, and so often it blows away and can turn the land into a desert. But with cattle prices so low, Skip says, he doesn't know what else he can do.

WOODWARD: And I'm going to keep grazing it and keep feeding 'em until I just don't have no choice and have to just completely sell out.

MAN: Yeah, I think everybody's being forced overgrazing.

WOODWARD: And there ain't nobody like it. But -- I mean it's do or die. I mean you can't -- you just get by the best you can, you know?

MAN: I think the best you got is to try for the long haul.


(Singer: "She's looong gooone and noooow I'm loooonesome bluuues....")

TOLAN: In West Texas ranch country the cows are eating away at the rancher's bank account of grass. Up in Seminole farmers suck their underground reserves. In the last couple of weeks a little rain has fallen, but a drought doesn't start overnight and it's not going to go away with a couple of rains. As it continues, ranchers and farmers will pull harder at the resources. They know they're cutting into their long-term capital. But no one seems to be warning them not to. The only clear solution they see is to wait, and hope, and pray, for a good season of rain.

(Singer: "I'm gonna find me a river, one that's cold as ice...")

TOLAN: For Living on Earth, this is Sandy Tolan reporting.



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