Down to the last drop: The Texas Panhandle water crisis

Jul 7, 2014

An American flag stands sentinel over the harsh Texas Panhandle landscape southwest of Vega, Texas. The tattered edge is a testament to the relentless wind in the Panhandle.

If you ask Dale Artho about climate change, and the predictions scientists are making, he’ll say there’s no point in discussing the doomsday prophecies.  It’s already happened in Vega, Texas.  He can give you details. 

“It was June 26,” Artho says. “We were 114 degrees, with winds 40 to 50 miles per hour. The corn just turned white. The water that was in the plant – it just bleached it. It was ugly.”

The once plentiful quantities of water from the Ogallala Aquifer that changed the High Plains to an amazingly-productive agricultural region are going dry according to a recent article from NBC News

In Vega, the underground water supply has been pumped to the last drop.  The only irrigation water to be had comes from the sky, and in a drought stretching on for years, conditions are dire. 

The Spinhirne farm is west of Amarillo.  Lucas farms the family homestead, where he and his wife and their three children live.  The dryland farmer works to groom his land to capture every drop of rain, creating dikes to hold the water, and rows of dirt clumps to try and hold the ground so it’s not transplanted to another county by the relentless prairie winds.  Even with all these efforts, it’s officially year of the drought many say is worse than the Dust Bowl days of the 30s.

James Mahan is a plant physiologist and an in-law to the Spinhirne family.  He works at the USDA Ag Research lab in Lubbock.  He says, “We’re headed for a brick wall at 100 miles per hour, and really, the effects of climate change are branches hitting the windshield along the way.”

The depletion of the Ogallala is primarily manmade.  A combination of irrigated farming and Texas water rights are at the root of the issue, but the nature of the Ogallala itself is a factor.

No other state’s water law allows such unencumbered individual control.  Basically, the law says if you own the land, you and only you own the water.  The danger in that concept is becoming apparent as the Ogallala disappears.  The law favors the individual above the needs of the community, and in effect, makes water conservation districts ineffective.

To read the rest of the story about the loss of industry, jobs, and how current water law is allowing a man to sell his water to Panhandle cities, head on over to NBC News.