Still, water

The battle to control water in Texas may be even more defining than the battle to control oil here 100 years ago, and it needs to be covered with an urgency to match

AUSTIN, TX — As the 83rd Legislature lingers in the state capitol for a special session, lawmakers here have already crossed one item off their list: a new plan to finance improvements in Texas’s water infrastructure, part of which was signed into law just last week by Gov. Rick Perry. As KUT, the local NPR affiliate, put it: “legislators are tearing rotator cuffs patting themselves on the back”—though the plan still awaits final approval from voters in November.

Nothing in an arid environment is more precious than water, and in Texas a booming population, persistent drought, and tenuous water supplies have begun to alarm not just environmentalists and other activists, but politicians and big business. Of course, that scarcity brings not just peril but opportunity. As a friend from Abilene put it to me recently: “Water is the new oil.”

And so the headline question in this drama—will there be enough water for the millions of people flocking to Texas?—is really only the beginning. Just as pressing for reporters to cover are the follow-ups: Who will own the water? Will Texas see rural areas drained to benefit big cities, as happened in California as Los Angeles swelled? In a state that prides itself on rough-edged capitalism, will water be captured as a private resource for profit? Or managed as a public resource for the common good?

But the story does begin with the fact that Texas doesn’t really have enough water. Austin and many of the state’s other major cities experienced an unusually cloudy and wet spring, pushing the extreme drought of 2011 out of mind a bit in the urban centers, but some form of drought conditions persist across the vast majority of the state, and severe drought is hammering the Panhandle and much of South Texas. The Texas Tribune’s Kate Galbraith—a leader on the Lone Star water beat— scooped everyone with a May 22 report on one manifestation of the drought: water levels continue to fall in the Ogallala Aquifer, which nourishes 16 counties in the Texas Panhandle and stretches as far north as South Dakota. After many dry years, farmers are pumping more water out of the ground to keep crops alive and leaving less for future use.

In addition to scoops like those, Galbraith has consistently provided the big picture. In early April, well before the legislature acted, she produced a wide-ranging but to-the-point analysis about the fallout from the drought, in Texas and elsewhere across the West. The piece described how water shortages have upended local economies, inspired outlandish ideas (piping water hundreds of miles, from the Missouri River to the Colorado River basin), and also to some extent reshaped the political culture, with small-government boosters now embracing regulations that favor conservation and reuse. Galbraith even casually used the two words that are generally banned from official political conversation in Texas: “climate change.”

The Austin American-Statesman has also devoted a great deal of coverage to water issues, including conservation, alternative sources, and one of the most important and sensitive questions: Who owns and will own the water? The Statesman’s Asher Price has persistently probed this issue, and pointed out in a May 25 story that a new financial commitment won’t resolve planning hurdles and disputes about water rights both within Texas and with neighboring states and Mexico. In an earlier article, Price detailed how various interest groups, many of them based in industry, put water policy atop the legislative agenda—and how that perspective, some critics believe, led the state to emphasize new infrastructure over conservation.

Elsewhere in Texas media, National Public Radio’s State Impact project has steadily covered the persistence of drought even as many other outlets have lost interest. And Pew’s Stateline recently analyzed the politics behind the legislature’s move: some Tea Party conservatives have pledged to derail the water plan at the ballot, where turnout this fall is likely to be very low.

So the strongest coverage of water issues here has been solid indeed. Unfortunately, too much of the coverage has settled for reporting on the basics of the official water plan and the new funding initiative.

But that’s really where the story starts, not stops, and where probing should begin. As author Alex Prud’homme wrote in his 2011 book, The Ripple Effect, a global race is on to control—and profit handsomely from—supplies of clean, fresh water. Texas is no exception. Indeed, it may be at the forefront. Prud’homme, appearing in Austin in 2011, noted that Texas doesn’t only face years-long droughts; because of climate change, it is confronting long-term desertification. At the same, billionaire T. Boone Pickens has sought to gain water rights in the Ogalalla—and with them the chance to profit by selling water to the highest bidding, thirsty city.

Already, private water companies have bought up water from small towns, only to raise the rates dramatically, as the Statesman reported in 2011. Residents of Wimberley, Texas, just outside of Austin, pay a local water company only a fraction of the rate charged by Acqua in Woodcreek, just outside the town limits. The Lower Colorado River Authority, which was set up by the Texas legislature in the 1930s, has been selling its retail water and wastewater operations to a Canadian water giant, Corix. To what effect?

Admittedly, droughts and water are not the easiest of subjects to cover. Unlike a hurricane or a tornado, a drought is a disaster in slow motion, and its toll is taken slowly, day by excruciating day. Water, in and of itself, is placid: it flows, rushes, and just sits there, quietly lapping at the shoreline. But the battle to control water in the early 21st century in Texas may be even more defining than the battle to control oil here 100 years ago, and it needs to be covered with an urgency to match. Sure, one will make you rich. But the other will keep you alive.

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Richard Parker is an award-winning journalist and the author of Lone Star Nation: How Texas Will Transform America, from Pegasus Books. Follow him on Twitter @Richard85Parker.