How the World Ends: Not a Bang, a Brown Lawn

Lake Ray Hubbard, a reservoir of drinking water for the city of Dallas, Texas. Anybody worried yet? (Photo by Terry Shuck/Flickr)

According to last Sunday’s Fort Worth, Texas, Star-Telegram, “Lee Weaver knew he was facing a serious problem when he watched his lawn sprinkler dwindle to a meager squirt at his home south of Fort Worth.” This tells us pretty much all we need to know about Mr. Weaver, who in the midst of one of the worst droughts in the history of Texas was watering his lawn. It tells us a lot about journalism, too, when writers about this frightening, life-threatening and prophetic event think the best way to grab our attention in graf #3 is to highlight the agony of the brown lawn. And that says an awful lot about us.

It gets worse in graf #4, wherein we learn that not far away, “Pete and Stephanie Baldwin were confronting the same sobering reality — the well at their 10-year-old home with a St. Augustine lawn and an inviting pool was barely pumping.” OMG. Do you realize what St. Augustine grass looks like when it isn’t watered EVERY DAY??? Are we sober yet? More to the point, are we in touch with reality yet?

Credit where due: the newspaper’s lede gets it right:

The ferocious Texas drought is clobbering crops, thinning out cattle herds, decimating wildlife, and drying up streams and reservoirs, but it’s also wreaking havoc deep underground, where the state’s aquifers are dropping at a precipitous rate, experts say

That the surface water in Texas is drying up is by this point well understood. What seems to be coming as a surprise to the lawn order crowd is that the aquifers — the underground reservoirs from which wells draw their water — are drying up, too. All over Texas, the aquifers have dropped from 20 to as much as 50 feet, leaving well pumps sucking air like so many straws in an empty milkshake cup.

The depletion of the aquifers was predicted many years ago when Big Agriculture started pumping underground water by the acre-foot (enough water to cover one acre to a depth of one foot), taking 80 per cent of all groundwater used to irrigate crops that ordinarily would not grow in desert conditions. (See also “All of Our Aquifers are Leaking“) It was predicted again when developers of the endless, sprawling ranchette subdivisions adopted the habit of drilling two wells for each lot — one for the lawn. And it was predicted most recently when fracking — hydraulic fracturing natural gas wells, which uses and contaminates about a million gallons per frack — became the preferred method wherever there is shale, and there is a lot of shale in Texas.

Still, folks like Lee Weaver seem startled when their wells suck air and their lawns turn brown and then — only then — do they get worried.

Let us do a brief reality check:

  • Texas is the epicenter of an historic drought crisis in the southern Plains, with “exceptional drought,” the most severe drought category, gripping 75 percent of the state. Texas climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said it was the state’s third-worst drought since 1895.
  • This drought has recently spread to  the heart of the Midwest crop belt. The U.S. Drought Monitor, produced by a consortium of national climate experts, reports abnormally dry conditions affecting a significant area of the Midwest — about 10 percent — including parts of Iowa and Illinois, the top two corn- and soy-growing states that annually produce about one-third of the U.S. corn crop. Also affected were southern Wisconsin, northeast Indiana, northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan. Ironically, the areas not affected by the drought were soaking wet from this spring’s flooding along the Mississippi, Missouri, Souris and other rivers.
  • The drought is threatening far more than lawns and swimming pools. Because corn supplies in the United States, the world’s largest producer and exporter of the grain, are projected to fall to a 16-year low by the end of August, the grain trade is counting on a large harvest this fall. Worries about shortages helped lift corn futures on the Chicago Board of Trade to an all-time high near $8 a bushel last month.
  • Rising demand — for soybeans from China and for ethanol and cattle feed in this country — continues to push up prices and eat away at reserves. The price spikes have already contributed to famines and sparked revolutions in many poor countries of the world, but in the US have failed thus far to eclipse concern about brown lawns. There is growing worry about having enough grain to meet demand — at any price.

Texas, at the direction of its governor, has been praying for rain (and a juicy tropical storm is aimed at it at the moment, as if in answer). But the motivation seems to be to get back to green lawns and full swimming pools. If it ever gets through to Texans and the rest of us that our very survival is hanging by a thread, what will we do? Pray harder? Or go out and water the lawn?


[For updates on this and other Daily Impact stories, and for short takes on other subjects, check out The Editor’s Log.]



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2 Responses to How the World Ends: Not a Bang, a Brown Lawn

  1. HB says:


  2. Gail Zawacki says:

    You did a nice job pointing out the Texas-sized absurdity of watering lawns during a drought in your article! But in a way, it’s not so surprising that they are clinging to their lawns. Lawns represent the vanquishment of nature, especially big lawns that take lots of polluting two-stroke power engines to control, and petroleum based pesticides and fertilizer. People who like to think humans are exceptional are loathe to abandon such a potent symbol of what they think of as our right to dominate every other species on earth. What a rude awakening they will have soon.

    Especially as inexorably rising levels of toxic ozone reduce crop yield and quality, and food will become too expensive for many Americans to afford. Links to research here: