Buddy Treybig, his bull neck burned the color of crawfish, steers his boat up the Lower Colorado, looking out the cabin for signs of life. There are birds on the staves of the dockside shore – herons and plovers and death-glare hawks – but Treybig isn't checking for them. Drum and sport fish promenade these waters, but Treybig isn't here for them, either. He's looking for fauna of the two-legged sort: other fishermen bound for Matagorda Bay, once the crown jewel of Texas estuaries. In the horn-of-plenty days a decade ago, so many vessels dragged its splendid reefs that fights would break out once the men got back to town – the locals trading punches with Vietnamese transplants and sometimes burning boats when things went squirrelly. Now there's no one but him in the channel; Treybig's rivals have either left for Louisiana or chained their fleets to the pier in Matagorda, too broke to buy the gas it takes to fish. "You'll see when we get up in the bay," mutters Treybig. "I'm the only one still dumb enough to do this."
It's been a long, dry haul in the southeast quadrant of the state. The majority of Texas has been in a record-busting drought for most of a decade, and the last three years have been especially thirsty ones for communities on the Colorado River.
Not to be confused with the other Colorado – which, in wet years, runs from the Rockies to Mexico and irrigates farms and cities in seven states – this one is the largest body of water that begins and ends in a single state. The river and man-made lakes created to store its volume are all in desperate shape. From its source in Dawson County, just south of Lubbock, through its southeast meander to the Gulf of Mexico, you can park your car and walk across streams that once would have swept you to the sea. Drained by demand from boom-town cities in the power corridor of central Texas and by a run of relentless heat that cut its inflow and hiked up rates of evaporation, the Colorado is under existential stress, and much more pain is in the forecast. Every reputable climatologist, including the state appointee, is predicting another decade of recurring drought and steady upticks in heat. That's hard news for all the many life-forms that drink, swim, and make their living from this river. But it may soon prove a blessing for one rare species: private-equity firms, called "water marketers," which stand ready to reap huge profits from disaster.
Buddy hooks a left to the Intracoastal Waterway and takes the Mad Island cut to the Matagorda; there, the bay is forked by land, splitting into East and West Bay. Out on West Bay, it's eerily still, the raw morning cowled in February gloom, the prow of the Elaine Marie churning mud. Treybig and his deckhand, Erik Jacobson, lower their nets to the milky bottom to drag for oysters and shrimp.
"Used to be, you could make $100,000 a month [gross] just shrimping, never mind oysters," says Treybig, chomping the tip of a cigarillo into submission. "My hardest decision was going East or West Bay. Now the East Bay's dead and buried, and this one's dying right behind it."
For decades cool, fresh water flowed hundreds of miles south to these bays, released from the Colorado's main storage tanks, lakes Travis and Buchanan, above Austin. Once the river reached here, its fresh water mixed with salt water from the Gulf to create a glorious nursery for fin and shellfish, with just the right saline-and-oxygen mix to spawn endless supplies of hatchlings. En route to the Matagorda, the river watered the soil of south Texas' verdant rice fields, sustaining a $200-million-a-year industry; farm towns like Wharton, El Campo, and Bay City; and a dreamscape marshland for ducks, geese, and egrets – the largest winged migrations in the delta.
Then came the drought. The river's inflows shrank, and lakes Travis and Buchanan bottomed out as if someone had pulled the stopper. Three years ago, when they dipped to below 40 percent full, and rich homeowners saw their lakefronts slip 60 feet down dry cliffs, political heat was trained on the stewards of the river to cut off releases to downstream farmers. The board of directors of the Lower Colorado River Authority, who were empowered by the state to regulate releases, voted to stop flows to most of the growers, and allotted the bare minimum to the bays and estuaries – just enough to keep them alive until the rains returned. Instead, the river shrank, and for three springs running, those rice fields have stood fallow, putting all but a few farmers out of business. Meanwhile, water in the bay has turned brackish and sick, host to great swarms of parasites. Algae bloom in the shallows like stinkweed. Snails bind to oysters and suck the meat right out of them. An organism called dermo kills whatever the snails don't, and there's even a vicious bacteria that can eat the flesh off your arm.
"Don't fall in with an open cut," warns Treybig. "That shit gets on you, might have to chop off the limb."
He orders Jacobson to haul up the nets and loosen their bottom knots. Onto the deck spill tiny baitfish and two or three shit-caked oysters. Treybig bends to scoop a crab, smaller than the width of his hand.
"Ain't crab season yet, but should be way more than one here – and do you see any shrimp at all in this mess?"
He hands me the crab and clears the deck, chucking the small fry overboard. His workers will circle back on smaller boats, mining what's left of an oyster tract that used to be the glory of the Southwest. With luck, he'll limp through this year, then mortgage his soul for a bigger boat and chase Gulf shrimp up to a hundred miles offshore.
"I love this bay – been on it since age six – but you can't fight drought and city hall. In three years, they killed something God himself made, Rick Perry and his fat-cat boys in Austin. It could rain from now till May Day, and I hope it does, but how you gonna fix what's dead?"
I hold out the small crab writhing in my grasp; its blue claws strain to cut loose.
"Can I toss this one over the side now?"
"Or keep him for bronzing," he says. "He might be the last one down there."