The Other Time It Never Rained

Posted in: Featured | By: | August 24, 2009

How the West Was Written

How the West Was Written

When western writer Elmer Kelton passed away over the weekend, Texans lost his intimate understanding of the land and the nature of the American west.  Writers with greatness in them all seem to have an innate connection to a place and access to the language needed to help grasp the depth of that relationship.  In Texas, those writers have been regional giants like John Graves and J. Frank Dobie and Larry McMurty and in the broader reaches of the intermountain west there are few that approach the prose of Wallace Stegner.

Kelton, who lived in the Concho River Valley near San Angelo, blew breath into engaging characters and set them off on interesting adventures but there was always the landscape that informed their decisions and filled their hearts.  Born in Andrews County at a place called Horse Camp, Kelton was raised on the McElroy Ranch in Crane and Upton Counties where there was nothing but the flat earth, the eternal sky, and the long horizon.  A sensitive and perceptive boy had to know his own frail existence as well as the delicate construction of all that he surveyed.

One of the cowboy author’s most famous novels was The Time It Never Rained, which was about the seven-year drought in 1950s Texas.  In any genre, Kelton had the skills to get the pages turned and deliver a story with meaning and calling him a “western writer” does not define his great skills.  The Time It Never Rained came to be considered a story of the power of nature and the fragility of independent ranchers who surrendered to a government provider in order assure survival of their families.  We are exactly a half century removed from that great drought in Texas and we are facing far greater challenges than Kelton’s characters and, perhaps, even the people who lived through that dusty decade.

Texas is thirsty and there is not enough water to drink.  While there are significant underground aquifers in the state, there is a shortage of natural surface lakes.  In fact, most lakes in Texas are actually reservoirs that have simply widened rivers.  Midwesterners migrating to the state scoff at a Texan’s notion of what defines a lake.  Our reservoirs, or lakes, do not appear to be durable in this “other time it never rained.”  In Austin, Lake Travis is at its second lowest level since Mansfield Dam was constructed in 1937.  At the observation station on the dam Monday, the temperature was 105.2 degrees and the water level was 632 feet, 34 feet below the average for this time of the year.  The lake is considered bank full at 681 feet.  In the heat, estimates are that there may be a few feet of depth lost each week to evaporation.

Residents of the Austin metro area depend on the lake for drinking water but a significant amount of the acre feet of water in the reservoir is owned by rice farmers in the Houston area.  There is also a legal fight with San Antonio over the gathered water just west of the Texas capitol.  As Central Texas endured its record 66th or 67th or some absurd number of days with a temperature over 100 degrees, the San Antonio Water System filed a $1.2 billion lawsuit against the Lower Colorado River Authority in a dispute over the water in Lake Travis.  The LCRA, which is responsible for maintaining the supply in the Colorado River Basin, has been engaged in studies mandated by the legislature to see if it were possible to share water with San Antonio.  The agreement was contingent upon maintaining supplies for the Austin region and preserving the coastal ecosystem, which relies on the freshwater flows of the Colorado.  San Antonio sued, lusting after Austin water, even though the Alamo City remains the only major metro area in America whose residents have refused to fund the construction of a reservoir for a dependable supply of water.

San Antonio relies heavily on the Edwards Aquifer, a vast underground sea that is recharged by rain in the Balcones Escarpment, an exposed fault line in the land that runs from the Winter Garden region of Texas south of Uvalde up to near Fort Worth.  Geologists have suggested this break in the topography is where the south ends and west begins.  Blackland farming can be found 30 miles to the east of the escarpment and desert encroaches when the traveler is beating to the west.  Many years ago I recall reporting on a study conducted by the Guadalupe Blanco River Authority that tracked the usage of water in the basin of those two rivers rising at the foot of the escarpment.  My memory is that the findings of the survey revealed that about three fourths of the water from those two rivers, which was supplied to San Antonio, was flushed down toilets, used to wash cars, or sprayed on lawns.

Our lovely lawns and golf courses are particularly loathsome this time of year in the southwest.  Nature did not intend for there to be beautifully manicured green grass adorning our residential landscapes.  The people moving to Texas for the past 50 years have mostly arrived from climates where a lawn is easy to grow and water is plentiful for sustenance.   They have never heard of prickly pear or ocotillo and likely do not see beauty in the desert.  But everything was not intended to be green.  If it were, there would be some rain.  Austin is at just over 12 inches total for the year and began with a deficit of water from the 2008. The annual average is only 32 inches. There are likely to soon be mandatory restrictions against all watering of lawns and washing of vehicles other than at commercial enterprises.

Kelton could have written a mighty novel about our slow discovery in Texas that water is more precious than oil.  The entire state is suffering in the deepening dust.  Up in the Panhandle, cotton farmers using irrigation are dipping straws into the Ogallala Aquifer, which runs from the South Plains of Texas to the Dakotas, and is dropping steadily every growing season.  The recharge requires eons for an aquifer that began shrinking when cattle feed lot owners began using center pivot irrigation and liquid fertilizer to grow corn on the sand hills of Western Nebraska.

There is also a shortage of water out on the “Last Frontier,” the title proudly claimed by residents of Brewster, Jeff Davis, Hudspeth, and Presidio counties.  A developer building a resort in the desert near Terlingua angered people when he used Rio Grande and ground water to keep his golf courses green, even though he had paid for permits and taxes.  Up the road, near Van Horn, giant commercial pecan orchards are kept green and fruitful by wells and the Mesilla-Bolson Aquifer, which continues to drop annually, helps to slake the thirst of a million people in the El Paso metro region.  The Rio Grande, meanwhile, runs more slowly and more polluted each year and becomes less and less reliable or desirable as a water supply.  In the Lower Rio Grande Valley, there seem to be endless disputes over water in the big river between growers in Mexico and those living on the US side of the river.

Of course, it will rain again some day.  It always does.  But this time it will solve nothing.  There are already too many people in Texas and not enough water.   Between July of 2007 and 2008 just under a half million immigrants arrived and settled in Texas, 1324 new arrivals each day.  They began washing their cars, watering their lawns, and flushing their toilets, and the water level dropped further.   But who is to close the door or turn off the tap?

It’s a hell of a story, Mr. Kelton.  Wish you were around to tell it.

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