As a changing climate threatens to make future droughts deeper and coming floods more furious, as a spiraling population and the prosperity that follows it place more people and more property at risk, Texas finds itself at a crossroads. In this excerpt from journalist Seamus McGraw’s book, “A Thirsty Land: The Fight for Water in Texas,” a history of drought in the Dallas Metroplex creates a sense of urgency to ensure a hydrated future for one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S.
It is easy to lose sight of it in the daily urban bustle of a metropolis like Dallas. You could be forgiven for being distracted by the modern, honking, impatient rhythms of Fort Worth. But there is, for those whose job it is to make sure that there will be enough water for the Metroplex down the road, always a sense of almost painful urgency. Talk to them long enough and you begin to hear between their words a kind of persistent, low-level humming anxiety.
It is a “never again” kind of feeling. In fact, that is the very phrase they often use. “You probably heard that when we came so close to being out of water and we were rationing water in the fifties, our city leaders said never again,” Denis Qualls, who oversees the planning division for the City of Dallas’ Water Utilities Department, said.
It is odd in a way. Few if any of those officials are old enough to remember the drought of record with any clarity, if they are old enough to remember it all. And yet, the officials in the Metroplex are steeped in the lore of that long and vicious dry spell.
Many Texans are steeped in it, of course, though for most it is often imagined as a predominantly rural catastrophe. But it was a particularly hard time for the growing urban areas as well, and what would become the Dallas–Fort Worth Metroplex had as hard a time as any place in the state.
During the 1956 drought, long before the bottled water craze that took hold across America in the 1980s, residents of what would become the Metroplex were paying the equivalent of $4.41 today for water sold to them in what looked like repurposed milk cartons.
But despite all of that, the drought continued, unabated, until the rains finally came in early 1957. By the time they did, the city and its neighbors were perhaps within days of running out of water altogether.
It is therefore not surprising that in the aftermath, the Metroplex, independently at first and now increasingly as a regional unit, embarked on a massive campaign to augment its water supplies and to do it in a way that facilitated the continued growth of the region’s economic might.
In all, more than 6.7 million people call Dallas and Tarrant Counties home, and a lot of them are relative newcomers, with more than 1.5 million of them having shown up since the year 2000. By 2040, another 2.1 million people are expected to live in the region. By 2070, the year in which the contentious Marvin Nichols Reservoir is expected to be built, planners expect there to be more than 14.3 million people in the region, with more of that growth expected in the counties that collar Dallas–Fort Worth.
These are, by far, the most prodigious consumers of water in the region. Though the region as a whole uses only about 8.3% of the water consumed in the state each year, about 90% of it is used by those business and urban dwellers in the Metroplex. And they are going to need more of it as the years go by, from about 1.7 million acre-feet available now to about 2.9 million acre-feet by 2070, meaning that the region is going to have to come up with that additional 1.2 million acre-feet of water someplace.
How can the state gird itself against future disaster? For a water strategy that would be able to meet the growing needs of Texas in an increasingly volatile climate to be fully and reliably developed in a way that would benefit interests on all sides of the ever-expanding fault lines that snake through Texas, it would require an almost seismic shakeup. It would demand that the state, which has thus far deferred to local interests, take an active role in developing a true statewide water plan, one that recognized that the state is not a collection of nearly one hundred local groundwater districts or dozens of river basins but is a single entity. As state Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, has put it, it would require recognition that “either we’re all Texans or we’re not.”
Seamus McGraw is the author of The End of Country: Dispatches from the Frack Zone and Betting the Farm on a Drought: Stories from the Front Lines of Climate Change. His award-winning writing has also appeared in the New York Times, Huffington Post, Playboy, and Reader’s Digest. His book, From a Taller Tower: The Rise of the American Mass Shooter, will be released in April 2021.