The next stop on our Last Chance Tour of a collapsing civilization: the Texas Panhandle. The land is turning into desert, the people are acting out the Tragedy of the Commons (a pretty way of describing the way humans fight for the last scrap of a vanishing resource), the government is making things worse and almost everybody is pretending nothing is happening at all.
How bad is the Texas drought? 2011 was the hottest, driest year there in recorded history. The current drought began in 2010 and continues. It is part of the scenario predicted as a consequence of global climate change — a scenario that sees much of the American Southwest becoming virtually uninhabitable desert. The trends are proceeding as forecast, and the water supplies of many Texas cities, towns and farms are in grave jeopardy. But Texans, and their state government, and their dominant political party, do not believe in global climate change. So it’s business as usual.
When it doesn’t rain in Texas, and the crops wither and the surface reservoirs dry up, there is one alternative source of water. It’s the same source relied on by the people of New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota. It’s the Ogallala Aquifer, a vast underground repository of water that resembles a vast soaked sponge.
Like the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia, the Ogallala contains fossil water, deposited by glaciers tens of thousands of years ago. That means there’s only so much of it. In a wet year — and there aren’t going to be many more wet years in North Texas — the Ogallala water levels might gain a fraction of an inch in replenishment. Prior to the onset of this drought, Texas Panhandle farmers were habitually drawing it down by about a foot a year.
Then it got really dry and the farmers more than doubled down on irrigation, dropping the surface of the aquifer under the Panhandle by 2.5 – 3 feet. One well recorded a 25-foot drop.
But wait, it gets worse. According to the Texas Tribune, last year, in the worst of the drought so far, West Texas farmers continued to irrigate crops that were already dead with precious Ogallala water. They didn’t do it because they wanted to; they did it because they had to irrigate through the entire growing season in order to collect federally subsidized (and regulated) crop insurance.
The High Plains Underground Water Conservation District understands the First Law of Consumption (as propounded in Brace for Impact): if you only have so much stuff in a container, and you’re taking it out as fast as you can, pretty soon you won’t have any stuff left. So it has proposed placing a cap on water withdrawals from the Ogallala, putting meters on wells, that sort of thing. Doing, in other words, one of the main things we invented government to do — protecting the Commons for the common good.
Enter the Texas Supreme Court, which early this year announced a decision demonstrating once again that justice is blind. And deaf, and dumb. In Edwards Aquifer v. Day & McDaniel, the court upheld the Wild West tradition that you “own” the water beneath your land, making any interference with your full enjoyment of that water — even by a government entity trying to protect the common good (see: socialism) a potential taking. So, presumably, if you own an acre of land, and you enjoy using the well on it to supply, let’s say, the city of Houston, thus sucking water from under three states, that presumably would be fine with the Honorable Court.
Now lawsuits are falling like rain in Texas as farmers — especially including rice farmers, that’s right rice farmers – rush to protect their right to pump as much water from the rapidly failing Ogallala (and other aquifers) as they can enjoy. (Texas Farmers Battle Ogallala Pumping Limits — The Texas Tribune)
One can only assume that Texans, at the onset of winter, burn their homes in order to keep warm.
Tags: Ogallala aquifer, Texas drought