Musings on The Food Production Industry, Food Politics, Sustainable Agriculture
Saturday, September 10, 2011
FROM: The Austin American Statesman
Photographs by Jay Janner
Story by Brenda Bell
Austin American-Statesman staff
The meanest drought in modern Texas history looks different out here, away from the cities.
There are no emerald swaths of St. Augustine lawns, no blooming shrubs, no misters cooling bar patrons as the sun goes down on another cloudless, 105-degree day. The disconnect between what rural Texans are experiencing and sheltered urbanites are seeing has never seemed greater.
Out here, the brutality of the drought is measured not in annoying water restrictions or water pipes bursting in the dessicated ground — all now commonplace in Texas cities and towns — but threatened livelihoods, and the waning of life itself.
Livestock and agricultural losses are already estimated at $5.2 billion, and expected to rise. Stock tanks have dried up, hungry cattle are being rushed to market, crops plowed under. Wildfires have torched more than 3.4 million acres; deer are abandoning their young; oak trees that have weathered many a hot summer are fading.
The state’s aquifers, which supply 60 percent of its water supply, are dropping, squeezed by development pressure and lack of rainfall. Some of the brightest jewels in the river system - the Blanco, the Pedernales, have slowed to a trickle. The Sabine, in normally lush East Texas, is at an all-time low.
The U.S. Drought Monitor map shows an angry red blotch covering almost all of Texas, denoting extreme to exceptional — the most severe — drought conditions. In the past 12 months, just 15 inches of rain have fallen, the driest such period on record. The average daily temperature in July (87.1 degrees) beat the old 1954 record, by nearly two degrees. August temperatures, currently averaging over 89 degrees, are on target to set a new record too.
These “phenomenally consistent” weather conditions are the result of a long-running La Nina weather pattern — the same set-up for the infamous 1950sdrought, says Mark Rose, meteorologist for the Lower Colorado River Authority. When it began in 1949, one of every two Texans was still living in rural areas; by the time it ended seven years later, Texas had become an urban state, most of its population unfamiliar with the yearning for a good, two-inch rain.
There is no better depiction of that earlier time and place than Elmer Kelton’s “The Time It Never Rained,” the story of an old rancher’s struggle against the unforgiving “drouth” (in the Texas vernacular) — a story that rang so true that many readers believed the main character was based on their own fathers.
“I hoped the novel would give urban people a better understanding of hazards the rancher and farmer face in trying to feed and clothe them,” Kelton wrote in his preface to the book. “The heaviest readership, however, was west of the Mississippi. In effect I found myself preaching to the choir.”
Kelton died in San Angelo in August, 2009, a few months before the last statewide drought ended.