Who Stole the Water?

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Photograps by Corey Arnold

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?”

Treybig shrugs.

“Or keep him for bronzing,” he says. “He might be the last one down there.”

Everywhere in life, water flows downhill. In Texas, it flows to money.

Shortly after Rick Perry’s election in 2002 (he took over when George W. Bush was elected president), he and the wealthy men who’d financed his run declared the Longhorn State open for business. Brandishing cash from the Texas Enterprise Fund – a $300 million job-stimulus program enacted by the Texas legislature – Perry toured the country via donor-funded flights to woo companies to move their operations to his state. Untroubled by the stress of new industry on his dwindling lakes and rivers, Perry sweetened the state’s already pro-business sales pitch – lax regulations, anti-union laws, and freedom from state income taxes – by offering mammoth checks to relocating firms. In just the first couple of years, he committed $50 million to Texas Instruments, $40 million to Sematech (a semiconductor consortium), and $20 million to notorious subprime lender Countrywide Financial. Perry bragged that these grants would net huge returns in high-paying tech jobs brought to Texas.

It was cutthroat capitalism, and it cashed out in spades. Perry lured companies from other states, then the residents of those states followed them down to Texas, revving the home-building and retail sectors and growing the state economy during a world recession.

In 10 years, Texas added nearly 5 million people, or about one-fifth of its current population. Most of them settled in the middle of the state, where Austin, San Antonio, and Dallas–Fort Worth bloated like beached blue whales. Three of the fastest-growing cities in North America, they metastasized up and down I-35, disgorging tract homes, carpet lawns, and backyard pools on what had mostly been red-clay scrubland, and turned one-horse exurbs like Buda and Round Rock into booming bedroom towns. Overnight, Austin grew a big-town skyline, as condoplexes and luxe hotels thronged the downtown grid, pricing families out and bringing executives in to $400-per-square-foot apartments. “It’s a very vibrant place now for young folks with money, but they’re a tiny sliver of the population,” says Brian Rodgers, a local activist-investor who decries what has happened to his city. Citing Census Bureau charts and fiscal-impact graphs, he maps the stark shift in demographics: vast hikes in rents and property prices; a job market churning mostly service-sector jobs paying $30,000 or less a year, with more than 40 percent spending a third or more of their income on housing.


A decade of drought and unchecked development in cities such as Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Lubbock has overwhelmed the state’s traditional water sources: its rivers and lakes. Now the vast reserves of underground water, including the Ogallala and the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifers, are being fought over. Under the “rule of capture” law, brokers can sell water from surrounding regions to the booming metros, draining the reserves of smaller communities, many of which are already in dire straights. This summer the water supply in more than 30 Texas towns could run dry.

“Middle-class buyers got pushed farther and farther out,” says Rodgers, “and the rich ones moved to where the brown folks aren’t. Route 183 now, it’s all huge homes as far as the eye can see.”

Some of the jobs Perry bragged about materialized, but certainly not in the numbers promised. According to a 2011 report by Texans for Public Justice, a political watchdog group based in Austin, only 37 percent of the jobs that Perry’s office claimed were created by the Enterprise Fund actually existed. Instead, Texas leads the country in minimum-wage positions and has by far the most uninsured workers. But for Perry’s political mega-donors in the construction and retail trades – Doug Pitcock, CEO of Texas’ largest highway and bridge builder; Charles Butt, a billionaire supermarket owner; and Robert Rowling, a hotel and health-club magnate – life in Texas has never been better. House prices are up 20 percent from 2009, new developments carpet the hills west of Austin’s limits, and high-end malls fill the spaces in between with a stadium-size Whole Foods and Neiman Marcus. Those donors and many others have thanked the governor handsomely for his help, contributing $102 million to his campaign fund or to the Republican Governor’s Association, a shadowy slush-pot formerly headed by Perry that raises tens of millions of dollars a year. Best of all, they’ve handed him a robust plank when he runs again for president in 2016 – 10 years of high employment without raising taxes. The stump speech will practically write itself.

But in the teeth of Perry’s national ambitions blows a gust of something bigger: the hot, dry fact of climate change. From the Mississippi River to practically all points west, a massive system of oven-door air has moved in and set up shop. California’s drought, its worst in four decades, shut down farms in the Central Valley, where nearly half of the nation’s produce is grown. Ranchers in New Mexico, facing their fourth year of drought, sold their herds before they died of thirst or heat prostration. The snowpack in the Rockies, which feeds the other Colorado River and is the lifeblood of Las Vegas and Phoenix, shriveled to levels so low that pipes in some of the storage lakes it supplies couldn’t capture its flow.

And so on, from Oregon to grain-belt states like Kansas and Oklahoma: They’ve faced droughts before, but this one is different, particularly in a place like Texas. Over the course of the last decade, the arid state has run desperately short of rainfall. Reservoirs everywhere have thinned or tapped out – Lake Meredith has nearly gone dry, parching Amarillo and Lubbock; Lavon Lake dwindled to half its size, threatening supplies for Dallas and Fort Worth; and the majestic Rio Grande ran so thin that the city of El Paso put in doomsday restrictions, closing laundries and car washes and ordering its residents not to bathe or wash their clothes. It could always be worse, though: They could live in Wichita Falls, a city of 100,000, northwest of Fort Worth, that’s less than two years from running dry. There, they’ll be drinking their own wastewater, once it’s been treated at the plant. They won’t be alone: Other cities in Texas are planning so-called “toilet to tap” conversions.

“It’s something we’re all headed to,” says Lubbock’s mayor, Glen Robertson. “It’s not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when.”

The heat that rolled in stayed for months, stretching summers to the breaking point. In 2011, Dallas suffered 40 straight days of triple digits. Austin obliterated its record for 100-degree weather, posting 85 days, total. The state at large shattered dust-bowl marks, posting the three hottest months in American history – a truth that barely inconvenienced the governor. Taking the podium to road-test his run for the presidential nomination in 2012, Perry denied climate change at every turn, famously calling it a “doctored” crisis and “a contrived, phony mess.” He did so while much of his state shoveled ashes, following the worst fire season in history: More than 31,000 blazes burned 4 million acres, or about half the national lands lost to fire in 2011, and cost Texas more than half a billion dollars in razed homes.

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.

They’ve been saying it in Texas since the first Anglo planters dug their crude canals for pecan trees: Whiskey is for drinkin’; water is for fightin’. Except that even then the canard rang hollow: Water is for stealing. In the 1860s, U.S. troops drove native tribes off their eons-old oasis, Comanche Springs, enabling settlers to transform the Chihuahuan Desert into a delta of produce farms. A compact was struck among the Panhandle’s growers to share the water fairly among each other. But in Texas, “common interest” is happy talk for socialism and never stands the test of avarice.

In the 1950s, along came Clayton Williams, an oil and cow magnate who dug dozens of gas-fired wells on his ranch and drew all the water out of Comanche Springs. His neighbors, rightly outraged, sued in three courts – and lost to him each time in landmark trials. The courts said Williams owned every last drop he could suck from the caves beneath his soil, and tough luck for his fellow landsmen with shorter straws. That law, called “rule of capture,” defines Texas’ approach to problem solving. It honors the state’s right to control its surface water, but grants absolute ownership of below-ground water to whoever owns the land above it. The owner of that water can largely do what he likes – hoard it, waste it, or sell it at profit – even if it bankrupts his next-door neighbor and tanks the ecology of his county.

Williams’ win was great news for tycoons and oil extractors, exalting the claims of the big ranch owner over the greater good of his townsfolk. Sixty years later, when surface water is dying and Texas can’t support the population it has, let alone the people still coming, it has emboldened a new cast of cutthroat investors, including Clayton Williams’ son, Clayton Jr. Claytie, as he’s called, is an oil-and-gas scion who could easily have been invented by Molly Ivins. In 1990, he ran for governor and was ahead by double digits in all the polls. Then he wisecracked that women being raped should “just relax and enjoy it.”

Like his father, he’s monopolized the springs in Pecos County, pumping 41 million gallons a day to water his cattle and telling a reporter, “It’s my land, and I have the right… If I didn’t pump water, [the land] wouldn’t be worth anything.”

In 2010, he decided to double down, making a deal with a utility company in Midland, Texas – his firm would build pipelines to send Pecos County water 100 miles away to that booming oil town. Shortly thereafter, oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens struck a deal to pipe groundwater, for $103 million, to 11 cities, including Lubbock and Amarillo, replacing the depleted Lake Meredith. Like Williams, Pickens drew from a depleted source: the Ogallala Aquifer in West Texas, which sat below land he owned or to which he leased the water rights. One of the world’s great underground bodies, it irrigates crops in eight states, brings drinking water to millions, and, for decades, was presumed to be boundless. But in Texas, the drain has been so rapacious that levels in the Ogallala have dipped hundreds of feet, bottoming out completely in shallow sections.

To stem some of the damage done by the rule of capture, and to protect the state’s reserves from men like Williams, Texas created local groundwater boards to regulate sales to outside parties. In Williams’ case, the system worked: His deal was voted down by the county board. Not so with Pickens and his Mesa Water holdings, which won local board approval to sell water to the 11 cities. Pickens made out grandly at the expense of the Ogallala, while hiking up future water costs for residents; groundwater is much more expensive than surface water, as it must be pumped farther and treated twice, not once. “It’ll be on your water bill and mine,” said Norman Wright, chairman of the Canadian River Water Authority, which struck the deal on behalf of the 11 municipalities and took out bonds to pay Pickens’ price.

Though Pickens had hoped for a far more lucrative strike – his real target was the Dallas–Fort Worth nexus and its 7 million total residents, but the costs of piping water there proved too great – he’d written the game plan for future investors. Lease the water rights to farms you don’t own, bundle that water to fast-growing cities from Dallas to San Antonio, then bulldoze the groundwater boards with top-shelf lawyers and pay for studies “proving” your claim that the aquifer won’t be tapped by your withdrawals. In other states, progressive politicians could be called on to fight such stunts.

But in Texas, there is no opposition party. “Democrats are the same as Republicans here; they’re all in bed with developers,” says Linda Curtis, who runs the Texas League of Independent Voters, a coalition fighting the Keystone Pipeline and the ravages of sprawl on state resources. She says people like herself and her green-shoots cohort of hydrologists, lawyers, and Sierra Club types are the only ones fighting Perry’s growth machine on behalf of small towns. She and her group were key players in the defeat of the governor’s grandest ambition, a grid of superhighways called the Trans-Texas Corridor that would have cost Texans billions in tolls collected and put much of that money into the pockets of his contributors – the road-building and construction lobbies. Now Curtis’ focus is on the water fight brewing mere miles from her house in Bastrop, a town of 7,000 that’s a half-hour’s drive from Austin. For Curtis and her neighbors, the politics are personal, and the stakes could not be higher.

Now abandoned, Carlos’n’Charlie’s was a lively shoreside party spot on Lake Travis.

“If you look to your right, you’ll see how close we all came to being burned off the face of the map,” she says, driving north on Highway 21, which zigzags across Bastrop State Park. “Labor Day weekend, 2011, this whole forest went up in smoke, ate 5,000 acres and 1,600 homes. And if the wind had shifted just the slightest bit, mine would’ve gone up with them.” Record heat and dryness had turned the pine trees into pipe bombs; the resin in their pulp literally exploded when lit by flame, kindling the worst fire in state annals.

“Climate change and drought – those aren’t just concepts; we’re living them every day in Bastrop County.”

Like most of her neighbors in this brown-collar town of mechanics and landscape workers, Curtis gets her water from Aqua Water Supply Corporation, a local utility with shallow wells that pull groundwater from the Colorado River. But the source of some of that water is actually treated sewage flowing downstream from Austin. It contains enough iron to clog Bastrop’s wells, and enough estrogen from excreted birth-control pills to cause horrid mutations in frogs and fish.

“We’ve got quite a bunch of six-legged toads,” says Phil Cook, a senior water expert who recently retired from Sierra Club Texas. “Bastrop’s dirty secret is that it treats water for iron, but not estrogen and other drug compounds. That’d be way too expensive for their small system.”

Understandably, then, the town went looking for other sources, and found a sweet one beneath its feet in the Carrizo-Wilcox. The aquifer, which begins in Louisiana and drains southwest across Texas to the Gulf, has enormous reserves in deep-diving strata, which drop 2,000 feet below the soil. Bastrop signed a contract to pump a tiny portion of the Carrizo from beneath the land of a nearby ranch, and presented its request to the Lost Pines District, the groundwater board in its county. The deal – for 6,000 acre-feet of water a year, or enough to serve 20,000 people – would have been granted without objection in other years. Suddenly, though, Bastrop found itself in line behind claims brought by End Op and Forestar, the equity firms with grand designs on Bastrop County’s water. Between them, they demanded permits to pump 101,000 acre-feet (enough to serve the needs of 400,000 people) and pipe that water to counties south and west, to the rich, booming suburbs of Austin.

“Outrageous,” seethes Curtis, who mobilized her neighbors, bringing large crowds out for public hearings. “You pull that much water, and our local wells won’t reach it. We’ll be sucking dry pipes while they get rich.”

Last year, Lost Pines sided with Curtis, granting the companies just a quarter of what they’d sought.

“I thought that was fair,” says a water consultant who represents outfits like Forestar, though not in this case. “Sometimes the amounts they want are scary – and those board members have neighbors they have to face.”

But following the Pickens playbook, both firms protested, going for a hearing before a judge. The judge ruled for Lost Pines in the Forestar claim, saying the board was simply doing its job. Infuriated, Forestar launched the nuclear option: filing a civil lawsuit in district court against the Lost Pines board and its members.

“Under the takings claim – that Lost Pines deprived Forestar of earnings from that water – the company is demanding damages equal to that loss from each of the 10 people on that board,” says Cook. “These are middle-class folks who don’t get paid to do this job and here they suddenly stand to lose their life savings in multimillion-dollar judgments. Forestar may be vicious, but it’s not stupid. If I were a member, I’d give ’em what they asked for, then resign my seat in a second.”

To defend itself in the likely years-long war against an army of $800-an-hour lawyers, the board has built a fund of roughly $1 million, which might see it through one trial and a round of appeals. It has no money to hire lawyers for its members, though, which leaves them on their own against deep pockets.

“Even if the county stepped in to pay their fees, Forestar’s set the precedent for these fights,” says Cook. “It’s ‘Give us what we want, or we’ll make your lives hell – and we’ve got the money to do it.’ ”

Indeed, most observers think the end is near: The big-foot firms will eventually squash the rural boards and appropriate their water for urban clients. According to the latest survey by Forbes, three of the 10 fastest-growing cities in America are in the state of Texas, and those cities have the votes and rate-payer bases to create a supermatrix of water. Last fall, Perry’s backers pushed through Proposition 6, a $2 billion fund to start digging for pipelines, among other projects. That money is mere pocket change tossed in the fountain: Perry’s Water Development Board plans $50 billion in spending to bring water to users, and most of it won’t be falling from the sky.

“This is the new normal for Texas weather, so access to groundwater is essential,” says the water consultant, who thinks equity firms should be honored for their vision, not feared as resource raiders. “People don’t want to spend any money – they want to use conservation. But in a state that’s as rich as most other countries, there’s a point when you have to build projects.”

But even with new pipelines, local boards will have to compete with water brokers for what resources remain. As the city of Bastrop recently learned, the power to control water is shifting already: Its request for 6,000 acre-feet a year has been blocked by Forestar’s lawyers. The company has threatened to sue anyone whose permit is granted before it gets its full allotment. Bastrop’s children, then, will have to go on drinking water bearing the hormonal waste of Austin’s women. That’s horrid publicity, but Forestar’s flacks can spin it: Hey, at least you’re not living in Wichita Falls.

Depending on whom you ask, the price to deliver groundwater is five to 10 times greater than for surface water. It costs $1 million per mile just to lay the pipes, not counting what you have to pay property owners for the right to raze their homes. Then there’s the cost to treat it for solids and condition it so it doesn’t clog your pipes. When you add in the fuel charges to pump it uphill, you’ve created a resource pricier than oil and surely in shorter supply. In the crudest terms, there’s a fortune to be made, and a new class of commodity kings are jockeying to get there first.

It’s too soon to know who the winners will be; there are court fights ahead and likely a legislative deal to gut the local boards altogether. But it’s clear, even now, who the losers are: any Texas counties not growing at warp speed, and their residents who lack the means to move to cities.

“We’re losing this generation of kids down here; they’re up and out the door the day school’s over,” says Buddy Treybig, the Matagorda fisherman who presides over his town and its dying bays. He isn’t the mayor of Matagorda (population 700), but he might as well be, practically speaking. He sits on all of its boards, raises the money to feed its poor, and speaks for the coalition of farmers and watermen in this hard-bitten county of 36,000. “Between my two sons, I thought that one of ’em would stay and work this boat with me,” he says. “But if you were their age, would you stick around when all your friends are moving north?”

Linda Curtis in Bastrop State Park, the site of a 2011 wildfire that burned 34,000 acres of land. 

He sends me across the bridge to the county seat, Bay City, where Chamber of Commerce executive director Mitch Thames gives me a guided tour of south Texas’ post-water future. We drive to see Harley Savage, the 83-year-old foreman of a rice-farming clan that’s been here since the 1820s.

“We’re five generations, and my grandboys are willing, but this business is done by next year. Been through everything you could think of and came out of it OK, till Austin got so big it took our water.”

Returning to Bay City, past shuttered stores that sold equipment and seed to farmers, we pay a call on Joe Crane, who runs a rice-drying plant and has 80 employees he calls family.

“Third year with no water – I’ve got no choice; we’re looking at significant layoffs. Rice farming’ll go east, to Mississippi and Tennessee, but we can’t move east with it.”

We meet Jonathan Fehmel, whose family has been spraying farms in this county since 1948. “We had 20 planes going from dawn to sundown, dusting thousands of acres a day. Now, it’s only maybe 1,500 acres that still got water, and we’ve sold everything but our airstrip. We’re trying to lease that, too, if you know someone.”

That night, I sit with Treybig over a steak dinner, his mood as bloody as his ribeye.

“I’m up at four in the morning seven days a week, trying to catch enough to keep my oyster plant going, while the governor’s out braggin’ about the ‘Texas Miracle.’ We don’t need more people, ‘less they’re bringin’ some fuckin’ water. What we need’s a real miracle: two months of rain.”


This story appears in June 2014 issue.

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