The West Texas Drought: Praying for Rain
Air Date: Week of July 19, 1996
New deserts are emerging among the southwestern United States and Mexico on land where drought and soil erosion are combining to make a hostile land much more so. Sandy Tolan reports from the sand dunes and abandoned cropfields of Texas, and south of its border, on the troubled times of the drought of ‘96. (This is the second of a 2-part series which began last week in the second half-hour.)
NUNLEY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley, in this week for Steve Curwood. There's an old saying in parts of southwest Texas: during Noah's 40 days and 40 nights we got half an inch. But in the last 3 years it's been even worse than usual. The southwestern US and northern Mexico are suffering through the worst drought in 40 years. Living on Earth's Sandy Tolan recently traveled to the border region along the Rio Grande where the drought has wrecked a lot of dreams for farmers and ranchers, threatened water supplies in some towns, and is helping turn once productive farm land into a desert. Here's his report.
(A water sprinkler and birdsong)
TOLAN: Del Rio, Texas. Outside the International Boundary Water Commission, a State Department office, the lawns are slick and green. You wouldn't know this part of the border is in the midst of one of the worst droughts of the century.
(Sprinkler continues. Metal clanks)
TOLAN: But walk through the gate atop the massive Amistad Dam that crosses the Rio Grande. Stand at the midspan beneath the flapping flags of the US and Mexico under a sun fierce and penetrating at just 9 in the morning.
(Metal continues clanking)
TOLAN: And look west, down toward the Amistad Reservoir. This is one of 2 big lakes that hold water for millions of people downstream on both sides of the border. Every day the lake inches down. Now it's 47 feet below normal, down to one fourth its capacity. Richard Peace, manager of the dam, says land long submerged is suddenly reappearing.
PEACE: All that land out there is covered by lake. Little hills, you can see the white lines on them? That was all lake.
TOLAN: And now cross the thin span of concrete and look downstream; below the Rio Grande trickles from the dam.
PEACE: There's really nothing I can do about it. [Laughs] Pray for rain. [Laughs] Certainly worth a try.
TOLAN: Mexican vultures circle above us, a red-tailed hawk glides along at her patrol. Two hundred fifty feet below, the river winds through salt cedar, ocotillo, and purple sage, around the bend, toward worried, thirsty users downstream.
HOBBS: I'm Jimmy Hobbs. I live in Camaro, Texas. Well, I think it was about 105 yesterday so that's pretty hot. [Laughs]
TOLAN: Forty miles downstream, just north of the river, in a work shirt and baseball cap, Jimmy Hobbs is taking a break from the pounding sun. He leans back in his office chair to catch the breeze from the air conditioner.
HOBBS: I just farmed 300 acres on this one place down here, south of town, and right now I've only got about 50 acres because we've run out of water here because the lake's dry. And I can't even produce enough off of that 50 acres to meet my mortgage pay, much less live and pay my help and everything else.
TOLAN: Hobbs sells hay for a living. His prices are up, demand is high. But this year he's growing only 15% of normal. And it just doesn't add up.
HOBBS: I probably won't be able to start over again. [Laughs] It's too hard to borrow money right now.
TOLAN: You almost sound resigned to be going out of business.
HOBBS: Yeah, that's pretty much it.
TOLAN: This little border farming town was founded in hope by dust bowl refugees back in the 1930's drought. Now the drought of the 90s is putting their grandchildren out of business.
HOBBS: And my wife talks to me every day about it. [Laughs] She's really worried. She's a schoolteacher, maybe she can make enough to buy beans for a while. I try not to think about it. But I know I've got to face reality one of these days.
TOLAN: Downriver another 20 miles and across to the Mexican state of Coahuila, here the ribs are showing on all the cows and horses. Some lie dead by the side of the road. The grass is brown. There hasn't been a good rain for years. It's so bad Mexican ranchers are using butane torches to burn the stickers off the prickly pear cactus and give the cows something to eat.
AGUIRRE: Normally it's about 25 inches a year, when it's raining. You have 3 inches a year, that's bad.
TOLAN: Sipping ice tea under a canopy near the border town of Piedras Negras, Raimundo Aguirre says his family's ranch outside of town is in real trouble. But that's not his big worry. He's also director of public works for Piedras Negras, and his city relies on the Rio Grande for all its drinking water.
AGUIRRE: If the Rio Grande dries up, if the Amistad Reservoir goes down, I don't know where we're going to get our water from. I don't know. There is not enough water in wells to support the population that we have.
TOLAN: The Mexican government has cut off Rio Grande water for agriculture, directing all of Mexico's share to the border cities. Aguirre is implementing water rationing in Piedras Negras. And like officials all over northern Mexico, he keeps looking anxiously at the maddening, clear blue sky.
AGUIRRE: We have tried everything. Indian dances, communal brain, government support to seed the clouds. We have had everything here. Nature is going to do its work when it's going to do its work. I hope that it rains.
TOLAN: Downriver again, south and east 200 miles toward the Gulf of Mexico, we're back on the US side near the town of Harlanshin in the Rio Grande valley. Here, where every drop of the river is allocated, Texas officials patrol for people illegally diverting water into Mexico. But in south Texas as in Mexico, the real friction is not only the few so-called guerrilla pumpers. It's between the cities and the farms. Normally, agriculture uses 87% of the US share of the Rio Grande. In years like this the cities get all their water first, and the farmers, accustomed to having all the water they want, say they shouldn't have to give up anything until all the lawns in the cities are brown, the pools are dry, and everyone is on water rations. But you won't save much water in the Rio Grande valley by sticking a brick in your toilet. With farmers still using so much more than the cities, conservation has to come from the fields.
HILL: It is so hot, right now, that the cotton is blooming at night. And this has not been seen since the 1951 drought.
TOLAN: Gordon Hill, irrigation district manager, stands at the edge of a cotton field just a few miles from the Gulf of Mexico. He says some districts are running out of water.
HILL: This is going to make everybody rethink and sit down and start working on conservation.
TOLAN: Last year some irrigation districts accustomed to overabundance even sold rights to what they thought would be excess water. But Gordon Hill, after a couple of dry years in the late 80s, with the Rio Grande valley growing fast, saw the writing on the wall. He started taking steps to conserve water in his district, installing water meters in special plastic irrigation pipes.
HILL: If we had not started and just stayed just like we were, this district would have been out of water last May, in 1995. We would not have any of these crops here because we would not have had any water.
(Flowing water; fade to footfalls through tall grasses)
TOLAN: Just down the road, near the edge of the Gulf of Mexico, Tommy Schmitt moves through soft leaves of sugarcane.
SCHMITT: This I have not irrigated. I think it's holding up pretty good so far.
TOLAN: Schmitt's planted nearly 500 acres of cane. It cost him $175,000 and a lot of water. Cane is among the thirstiest of crops, too thirsty for a year like this one. This season, Tommy Schmitt may not even have a crop.
SCHMITT: Well I don't have enough water to go around, we're out of water.
TOLAN: Are you worried?
SCHMITT: Well, what good does it do to worry? I found out something a long time ago that there ain't one thing a man can do about the weather. You can cuss it and discuss it all you want [laughs]. When the good Lord decides it's gonna rain, my, it'll rain, you know.
TOLAN: At least Schmitt has crop insurance. But some people think in times like this a crop like sugar cane, which takes 4 feet of water a year, which gets government price supports, shouldn't be growing in the Rio Grande valley. Tommy Schmitt says he's gone too far to turn around. But he's feeling the pressure now from the cities, and he knows only one way to ease that pressure.
SCHMITT: I'll pray every night for rain [laughs].
TOLAN: In the Rio Grande valley, the Texas agricultural powerhouse, water is needed to preserve the abundance. But just south of the sugar cane fields, below the border town of Reynosa, Mexico, small farmers have no water at all, and no insurance. And now, virtually no good topsoil.
ABRAHAMSSON: There has been very, very little rain for last couple of years.
TOLAN: In northern Tamolipa state, about 50 miles west of the Gulf of Mexico, Rolf Abrahamsson, Swede by birth but a Mexican for 36 years now, has brought me to an amazing sight. Dry land farms that haven't seen a good rain in 3 years. Sub-tropical lands, normally moist and fertile, are being transformed into desert.
(The sound of winds)
ABRAHAMSSON: And those big fields now, with this drought, is -- everything is blowing away.
TOLAN: This is really amazing. We're standing on top of what has become in the last couple of years only, a sand dune that looks like pictures of the Sahara Desert or the Rajistan Desert in India. And looking out from the edge of the sand dune, which is beginning to cover up the cactus, you can look out, oh, about a mile across to these fields which, half of which are covered with sand and the other half, there's just the stubble of what someone hoped might be a dry land crop and is amounting to nothing. And looking across there you can actually see the sand blowing across the fields and turning this field, literally as we watch it, into a desert.
ABRAHAMSSON: The desert of Sahara, every year they're getting bigger and bigger, is what's going to happen here. If they didn't do something about it and quick.
TOLAN: Standing here you can understand why this agricultural season will be one of the worst in Mexican history. The drought is the main culprit, but over the years human hands have played their part as well. Government programs in the 70s encouraged campesinos to cut down trees for their small farms. But they didn't leave any natural barriers in the fields to help hold down the soil. So far, Mexican efforts to halt the erosion are preliminary or experimental. Meanwhile, in Tamolipas, there's a dust bowl. The drought is forcing people to abandon the countryside, accelerating the migration to the United States. On some days cars and buses heading north have to turn on their lights to see through the topsoil blowing away.
J. GONZALEZ: Keep going, straight straight straight straight. And now we be in the shade. Okay, from here we hike.
(Doors open, metal clanks)
TOLAN: It's been so dry for so long that old memories are re-emerging in the blazing sun.
J. GONZALEZ: Nobody has lived here for, since 1953. That used to be the school...
TOLAN: Forty three years ago, when officials started filling Falcon Lake behind one of the 2 big dams on the Rio Grande, they buried the town of Old Guerrero, Mexico, under the waters.
J. GONZALEZ: It's hard to imagine what time will do.
TOLAN: The town square, the schoolhouse, the village church, all went under. Now, the town stands in the sun once again.
J. GONZALEZ: As young kids we used to -- this was the main place over here. The girls came in the evening, they walk around the plaza.
TOLAN: From across the river in Texas, Jaime and Carmen Gonzalez and their friend Joel have come to see the town they remember from long ago, one they're used to visiting by boat.
J. GONZALEZ: When the lake is full, there has been enough water here that I have come with my party boat and we come right through here, circle the plaza, and go back out again. The church, as you can see where the water goes in, we'd go in and fish from inside the church.
TOLAN: Inside the Catholic church on an adobe wall, someone has placed a tiny shrine. Plastic flowers, holy water, candles and tin cans.
J. GONZALEZ: [Speaks in Spanish] This is what they call Altarcito...
JOEL: A mini-altar.
J. GONZALEZ: A mini-altar. And people, this is the Virgin Mary...
TOLAN: The Altarcito was built by the one person who's still here, an old woman on high ground living here 40 years after the town went under. Julia Samora's prayer is for rain. For rain to come again to raise the level of the lake. And drown the church once again.
(Singing in the background)
J. GONZALEZ: Yes. That's exactly what we're praying for. We need the rain back.
(Singers and band continue)
TOLAN: All along the border, down into northern Mexico and up across Texas, the prayer is for rain. From the mariachi masses to the public declarations in the town councils. And some are not just praying for rain. The situation is so bad, many people are now praying for a hurricane.
(Mariachi singers continue)
TOLAN: For Living on Earth, this is Sandy Tolan reporting.
(Mariachi singers continue)
NUNLEY: A dilapidated landmark is reborn as a nature center for kids in the middle of Manhattan's Central Park, coming up next on Living on Earth.
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