How greed, drought, and rampant overdevelopment are sucking Texas dry.
Credit: Photograps by Corey Arnold

In its worst drought ever, the state set no limits on car washing, sprinklers, or the building of backyard pools, nor did it ask frackers, power plants, or row-crop farmers to use less water and recycle. What's more, in the disaster plan that each state files with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the state didn't consider drought as a major threat, saying it had more than enough supplies to tough one out. Rather than face facts, Perry kept right on selling, handing checks to Fortune 500 firms: $21 million to Apple, $12 million to Chevron, $7.9 million to Visa, and so on. What he didn't impart to companies making the move was that what little water Texas had was already committed to existing clients and no new reserves were being secured for the thousands of transplants arriving daily. (The last reservoir built here was in 2001; the next one is still on the drafting table and won't be ready for 20 years.)

Absent any higher governance, Texas' cities began a frantic search for water to fill their lakes. Dallas, whose residents use ungodly amounts to nourish their lawns and fairways – almost double the average rate of New Yorkers and San Franciscans – tried to buy supplies from the Red River in Oklahoma, which went over about as well as you'd expect. Oklahoma filed suit against the out-of-state grab, stomping Texas 9–0 in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling while talking some prairie trash along the way. Regarding Texas' purchase offer, Oklahoma State Senator Jerry Ellis remarked, "That'd be like giving steak knives to Jack the Ripper."

Treybig in search of what shellfish remain in Matagorda Bay.

Meanwhile, everywhere you looked, fights were breaking out between cities in need of water and the rural counties that had it. That water – the last true stockpiles in the state – wasn't sitting around in lakes and streams, though. It was far underground, beneath ranches and farms, in nine vast, fragile reserves called aquifers. One of them, the Carrizo-Wilcox, had the very bad luck to flow under Bastrop County, a pipeline's distance from Austin, San Antonio, and the thirsty suburbs along the booming tech corridor I-35. For the past three years, it's been under siege from third-party players with grand designs, speculators who have signed leases with Bastrop landowners to buy up the water under their soil and sell it, for astronomical profit, to those wealthy cities. (In other states, groundwater is a public utility regulated like rivers and streams; only Texas has no laws barring private investors from buying and selling it as they choose.) A rural board has fought them off on behalf of Bastrop County, whose populace wouldn't fill the Austin stadium where the University of Texas plays football. Gnashing their teeth, the speculators sued, saying their God-given right to sell someone else's water has been violated by the board. That case is headed to district court this fall, and every eye in Texas will be watching. If the speculators prevail – prove they're entitled to all the water they've paid for, even at the expense of Bastrop's residents – there will be a gold-rush run on counties with ample water and sparse populations to protect it. And then it won't be rice farmers and oystermen going broke, it'll be people in cities paying ransom rates to shower, and rural families waking up to dry wells and faucets as the aquifers they drink from drain and die.