Saturday, September 3, 2011


Our October 2007 Water, Water Not In Atlanta post outlined some of the misery when Atlanta and north Georgia was in a severe drought crisis, seemingly the worst in the history of that region. We commiserated with our north Georgia cousins invoking our own similar experience just two years earlier and assured them the rain would return. It did, though that Georgia drought exacerbated the ill feelings and further compromised the already precarious environmental relationship Georgia has with the states of Alabama and Florida who also depend on the waters of the Chattahoochee River to supply water to residents and irrigate crops. That controversy continues and we wonder if it will ever be amicably (or reasonably) resolved. It’s a modern war over water now a scarce commodity here in Texas.

You’d be right if you assumed that many of us here in Texas have a great appreciation for our water resources. Well educated Texans know that there are no natural lakes in our area save Lake Caddo which is well east over on the Louisiana-Texas border. Even then Caddo was the result of water backed up by a 100-mile log jam on the Red River in Louisiana. The removal of the jam was accomplished by Buxton ancestor, steamboat builder and river captain Henry Miller Shreve (1785–1851) who opened the Mississippi, Ohio and Red rivers to steamboat navigation and was memorialized forever and a day with the naming of Shreveport, Louisiana.

Given the scarcity of this natural resource and spurned on by the record drought of the 1950s Texas built dozens of reservoirs (now almost 200) designed to maintain an adequate water supply in the event of another inevitable severe drought. We wonder, however, if regional planners have accurately conjured the meteoric growth of our state and the ultimate demands still to be placed on our still limited water resources. We have seen low population projections that in the opinion of the water folks will see the state of Texas unable to supply water to the great majority of its residents by 2060 in the event of severe drought. More pragmatic folks say that figure is closer to 2025.

This year (the hottest and driest on record in Texas) thanks to La Nina we have been faced with a true test of our plan and the jury’s still out whether we passed or failed. If the citizenry of our state doesn’t wake up and listen to those that monitor those precious water resources, then many feel that we will have an ultimate failing grade. Simply translated: if we don’t change some attitudes and conservation practices then someday we won’t have enough water for everybody.

The north Texas DFW region has a humid subtropical climate, though situated so that we also experience the heat and drought typical of the semi-arid region to our immediate west. This is all capped off by spring cool fronts that move south out of the high plains and Midwest only to collide with the warm, humid air streaming north from the Gulf of Mexico. That spawns severe thunderstorms, many with hail and tornadoes prompting our inclusion in the southern aspect of Tornado Alley. In short, we get a wide variety of weather that can include cold bitter wind chills from storms that sweep down from Canada in the winter, witness the 2011 Super Bowl fiasco at Cowboy Stadium.

So our precipitation in Texas has always been boom or bust, either too much or too little as the folks in Vermont can now attest. We aren’t getting enough rain at present and area lakes are being quickly depleted. North Texas area lakes have more water than other regions of the state and, thankfully, as of this writing it looks like the excessive 100°+ degree weather may be on the wane starting next week. Huzzah!

Even with our good fortune most of north Texas and for that matter most of the state is now rationing water. The DFW metro cities of Richardson, Plano, Frisco, Allen, Forney, Wylie, Rockwall, Garland and many others get their water from the North Texas Municipal Water District and are now in stage 2 mandatory restrictions. Many other cities are in voluntary water restrictions limiting any watering from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. That would include Dallas and Fort Worth who appear close to implementing mandatory restrictions. The fact that nearly 500 water systems throughout Texas are now under mandatory restrictions is unprecedented.

It’s easy to identify folks who are abiding by the water restrictions. A quick drive thru of any DFW neighborhood will feature dead and dying brown or yellowing lawns - proof positive that those homeowners are serious about conserving water. Lush, green lawns that are obviously being watered every day are the scarlet letter for those who care only for themselves and not for the good of the many. Even in the best of times we know that despite all our proactive conservation efforts roughly 50% of all the water consumed ends up on our lawns. The conclusion is obvious – we all have to change how we, first of all, perceive, then use and preserve this resource.

I drove through our neighborhood the other day and saw sprinklers on during the middle of the day, one guy washing a car in his driveway and another hosing off the gutters in the street in front of his home. A drive down some of the business and apartment thoroughfares will find sprinklers going strong during the day with all its attendant runoff. These incredibly stupid and callous acts are those that will tip us to an increased water rationing and the potential that some folks might not be able to get a drink of water. Ultimately that kind of irresponsibility will put us out of business.

Our infrastructure is already taking an incredible beating with almost daily water main breaks where the earth has moved mains and water supply lines where they didn’t want to go. Many roads have buckled and heaved and even if passable, drivers need to use special caution when traversing these areas. Railroad tracks have warped (so-called sun kinks) prompting a super heightened maintenance vigilance and much slower train runs. Rolling power outages have started to hit major population areas as record demands are placed on energy sources. The reduction and outright loss of trees and other vegetation is exacerbating the superheating effect that our cities (already heat islands) have on their surrounding environments.

As a youngster and even young adult I would never have dreamed that we would actually pay for water in a bottle. There was a lot of controversy when it was first introduced though now with its mostly guaranteed quality, portability and availability, it’s a major industry and a seeming harbinger of water in the future a la macro blue gold futurist T. Boone Pickens.

This week amid all this heat and drought I saw hope and promise in a mass planting of Texas Sage profuse with extraordinary amethyst blooms on silver leaves along the George H. W. Bush Tollway north of Dallas. They were magnificent and perhaps along with the succulent Red Yucca and other plants more suitable for our summer heat, a harbinger of what more of us should and will be planting around our homes in the near future.

And speaking about responsible plantings of native trees and plants, who were the yahoos (municipal arborists?) who brought in the Bald Cypress to the very alkaline and dry soils of north Texas? I was dumbfounded when I came back to north Texas and saw these trees which require acid soil and very wet feet. Tree of the Year or not, while they have survived and even flourished in good times with reliable irrigation, in this unprecedented severe drought and heat they are not just dropping their leaves, rather dying all over the metro area. They may be our canary in the coal mine – a foreign species of life brought into a hostile environment and now succumbing to Mother Nature.

Our reality is much crueler than a misplaced species of tree, however. Because of the drought and heat many Texas ranchers and farmers have quit or retired never to return again. So - no cattle, no auctions, no transportation and a whole industry – in a state where cattle far outnumbered people – now gutted. No plants, no insects, no pollination, no birds or other animal life and no agriculture as we have known it. The cycle of life and the food chain, all linked together has been compromised. And what about our continuing record-breaking wildfire season?

What about the effects of the heat and drought on John and Jane Doe? At work folks have commented about the changes they see in the overall demeanor and heightened stress levels of individuals including drivers who appear less cautious and respectful. Many are on edge what with the recession, increased cost of food, power, water, gas – the list goes on. The heat and drought have put a fork in it. One gentleman recently observed, “Everybody’s not in quite as good a mood as they could be. It just kinda beats you down.”

We wonder about Texas Governor Rick Perry’s blustery posturing against the Federal government and President Obama despite their substantial and apparent uncredited support fighting the wildfires and all the while hypocritically cutting the budget of the Texas Forest Service, the very agency charged with fighting those fires. Now how about Perry’s very public strategy to deal with the drought and heat – prayers. Perry is as we say in Texas, “A hat with no cattle.”

This chapter in Texas history is a reminder that we are only temporary occupants in a self-correcting system where we are the ones who have to make concessions to our environment. Our Native American Brothers and Sisters had it right all along: the Earth will sustain Homo sapiens and all other life on the planet to the degree that we choose to be good stewards of its controllable resources. Failing that we will go the way of the dinosaurs. Just ask the folks left in Happy, Texas. The state of Texas, Ladies and Gentlemen, has been changed forever.


Ned Buxton

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