In Texas, water may be free, but it's not forever

A cotton farm in Lubbock, Texas

Abandoned Main Street in post-irrigation town of Happy, Texas

Abandoned Main Street in post-irrigation town of Happy, Texas

Irrigated cotton crop in Lubbock, Texas

Abandoned Main Street in post-irrigation town of Happy, Texas

Kai Ryssdal: The ongoing drought helped set more records today -- the kind, sadly, that you don't want to be setting. Corn prices hit an all-time high. The Department of Agriculture said this morning it figures we could have the worst corn harvest we've had in 17 years.

Since there's not a whole lot of water falling from the sky, much of the farm belt is looking underground to local aquifers. But here's the thing about that: A new study in the journal "Nature" says 20 percent of the world's aquifers are being over-exploited. That is, the water level's going down. In part because water's not priced like other scarce commodities.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk -- today transplanted to Lubbock, Texas -- Scott Tong's on it.


Scott Tong: In the hot, dry Texas panhandle, they talk rain. They pray for it. They sing about it, kind of.

Buddy Holly: Raining in my heart...

Buddy Holly was born in Lubbock. He was the biggest thing that ever happened here. Well, him and irrigation. When farmers started to pump water from below in the 1940s and '50s, it changed everything. Kirby Lewis is a cotton farmer.

Kirby Lewis: This area, if it wasn't for the way the water was utilized, these cities wouldn't be here.

But here groundwater -- like oil -- is finite. Just go north, to the town of Happy, Texas. Hardly anyone's left. Main Street stores boarded up decades ago. I did find wheat farmer Clyde Hancock. He's 86.

Clyde Hancock: We got in a drought, like we are now. That's when we started drilling the wells. We pumped them for 20, 30 years. And then kind of ran out of water.

Tong: What did Main Street used to look like?

Hancock:One time there was grocery stores and drug stores. Had a doctor, cafes. Oh, in the 40s, 50s, back in there, this was a pretty thriving little town.

Dave Brauer met me in Happy. He works for the Agriculture Department.

Dave Brauer: This, in some parts of the high southern plains, is what we can expect to happen if we do not use the water wisely over time.

Brauer's job is to extend the life of the aquifer below, the Ogallala Aquifer. It's, as my kids would say, ginormous. It's America's largest underground water source. It runs under eight states, and feeds a lot of the breadbasket. If you think about your gas tank, the aquifer was on full for thousands of years. But in West Texas it refills awfully slowly. So the needle's falling.

Brauer: Where we've had irrigated agriculture, we're at least halfway. In other places, we're probably closer to E.

Academics estimate that in certain parts, there's 10, 20, maybe 50 years of water left. Until, well, to steal another local boy Buddy Holly...

Holly: That'll be the day when I die.

To many, the problem is water for farmers is free. Or, at the very least, it's underpriced -- so it's overused. Robert Glennon at the University of Arizona wrote the book "Unquenchable."

Robert Glennon: We have mistakenly set up the system, based on the assumption that water was in ample supply. We think in the United States of water as though it were the air.

It all goes back a century, Glennon says. The U.S. was Going West, young man. And to encourage farming, and ranching and mining, states allowed unlimited water use. For everyone.

Glennon: When I think about our water supply, I think of a giant milkshake glass. And I think of each demand for water as a straw in the glass. And what most states have permitted is a limitless number of straws in the same glass.

Today, 36 states are projecting water shortages next year. For regulators, it's hard to limit use. Especially in Texas, where groundwater is part of your private property. Again, Kirby Lewis, the cotton farmer.

Lewis: It's not a crime to pump water that you own. Cutting people off from their private property and some of the other things they're proposing, they're un-American.

To many farmers, the people warning about water running out are not prophets. They're Chicken Little. These people say the projections assume today's technology. And out here, it keeps advancing.

Cotton farmer J.O. Dawdy shows me his high-tech pivoting sprinkler. It's a giant arm with wheels, it sprays water in a big circle at plant height. That way hardly any water's lost to evaporation.

J.O. Dawdy: Just vision a rainstorm coming through and putting a half inch on this whole farm. That's what I'm doing with that sprinkler system.

And the next innovation's already here -- underground irrigation with zero water loss. Tomorrow's breakthrough? Some think energy might get cheap enough to move large amounts of water into the aquifer, say from the Mississippi River.

The key is to buy as much time as possible -- through innovation, regulation, or a price on water. And maybe, just maybe, the land of cotton can stay that way for a few more generations.

In Lubbock, Texas, I'm Scott Tong for Marketplace.


For more on Scott's visit to Texas, check out his Reporter's Notebook -- From (un)Happy, Texas -- where the water ran out

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

Abandoned Main Street in post-irrigation town of Happy, Texas

Abandoned Main Street in post-irrigation town of Happy, Texas

Irrigated cotton crop in Lubbock, Texas

Abandoned Main Street in post-irrigation town of Happy, Texas

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