THE drought that grips Texas is a natural disaster in slow motion. Life itself slows down, falters and begins to fade. Out here, in the low hills west of Austin, the ground under my boots is split and cracked, the creek below the house bone-white and dry. Even the Blanco River’s usually cool, spring-fed water is warm and still.
Droughts have come to Texas before, but this time it’s a killing heat that grips the state. Even the tough, rangy whitetail deer are starting to die. Last spring, an old, dark-faced doe that comes around from time to time stood in my front yard, her body plump with pregnancy. But her ribs were starting to show; the fawn inside was unlikely to make it far past birth.
Folks around here say this is unlike any drought Texas has ever seen. In a way that’s right; it’s the worst single drought year on record. But, as scientists now tell us, historically droughts here can last decades. Worse, when the rain does fall, it evaporates faster and faster as the American Southwest become drier, threatening to turn Texas into desert. As bad as this year’s drought is, the long view tells us that things could get much worse.
The drought is already changing the way we look at the land, the way we do business and live our lives. All over Texas, the country’s largest beef-producing state, ranchers are selling off herds early, losing millions of dollars, or hanging on just to watch the animals die for lack of water. Thirsty cows can even die from too much water; dehydrated and moved to water, the cows gulp it down too greedily, bloat up — and keel over dead.
On the Storm Ranch, 6,000 acres of rolling Hill Country, the saplings are dying for lack of roots long enough to reach for deep water through the caliche and limestone soil, like the older Spanish oaks and southern maples. “I haven’t seen it this bad in a long time,” said the ranch’s owner, Josh Storm.
On the Edwards Plateau, northwest of here, the quail, beloved by hunters, are down by over half the average already and there will most likely be fewer next year. Up in the Panhandle, farmers are plowing under dying wheat. In arid West Texas, the fear of a second Dustbowl is whispered in small towns.
Of course, Texas is an urban state, and the cities are better off. But even in Austin and Dallas, Midland and Denton, coyotes are turning up on suburban lawns in search of food and water. Looking a bit like a half-drained bathtub, Austin’s Lake Travis is closing many of its ever popular boat ramps. Local television crews regularly cook food on car dashboards to show how hot it is: in Austin they baked a batch of cookies. Not to be outdone, a crew up in Oklahoma grilled a steak.
We look at each other, in line for coffee or sitting at stop lights, and ask, silently, how long will it be this time?
Read the rest: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/14/opinion/sunday/as-texas-dries-out-life-falters-and-fades.html