Reporter's Notebook

From (un)Happy, Texas — where the water ran out

Scott Tong Aug 10, 2012

OK, raise your hand if you’ve been subjected to 1,000 showings of the kids’ movie Cars. We know who we are. Remember Radiator Springs, the abandoned town that lost all its business when the local road gave way to the interstate?

The Texas panhandle town of Happy feels like that. Yes, that’s the name, Happy (insert your own ironic joke here).  I traveled here for a story I’m working on about Texas water. Main Street is entirely abandoned, save for the Happy State Bank. Locals told me it’s been that way for decades, ever since they “ran out of water.” More accurately, the farmers irrigated so much the aquifer level fell below a level affordable enough to pump.

In the photos below, the wood-paneled vehicle tells the story. Or maybe the Old Happy Picture Show Building, 1946-1958.  


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


Abandoned Picture Show Building in post-irrigation town of Happy, Texas  


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


“It looks like towns in Appalachia” when the coalmines shut down, USDA water expert Dave Brauer told me. Speaking of coalmines, Brauer considers Happy the proverbial canary: if other water-thirsty parts don’t conserve, this could be their Unhappy future.

Brauer gives a couple reasons: first, the Ogallala Aquifer below refills awfully slowly. We’re talking thousands of years. So it’s effectively a finite resource (btw in these parts, don’t call it an underwater lake: the water’s spread out among rocks, sand and other geological … stuff). And second: like most places in the world, water costs nothing to farmers. Note the irrigated cotton farm shots here.  

Irrigated cotton crop in Lubbock, Texas


A cotton farm in Lubbock, Texas

Sure, farmers pay the costs of pumping it out, transporting and irrigating. But the price of the resource itself: zero.

His point is not to slam the farmers. How would you react if the grapes at the grocery store were free? Or, in my house, Butterfinger candy bars?

Robert Glennon at the University of Arizona, author of Unquenchable, zooms out some more. He explains water’s free not just in Texas, not just in the Western states, but just about anywhere in the country and the world.


If you zip down to Lubbock – the speed limit’s a spritely 75 – cotton farmers see it differently. They’ve heard the Chicken Little warnings their whole lives, and yet the underground water still flows.

And in case you don’t know what a cotton plant bloom looks like, Lubbock-area farmer J.O. Dawdy takes a couple minutes to show me.



Dawdy and his fellow farmers raise a compelling question: what’s the role of water-use innovation here? After all, the federal government has been warning for a century we’ve been running out of oil, and innovation and technology have consistently proved them wrong. With water, irrigation used to consist of a pump, and an irrigation ditch that flooded the cropland. Tons of water was wasted to evaporation (see photo on left, from Texas Agriculture Museum)

Today, Dawdy has two new toys: a center-pivot sprinkler that drips water at plant height, with hardly any evaporation loss. And underground pipe irrigation, with zero loss. (see below, right)

   So, is Chicken Little wrong? Will technology save the day again? The USDA’s Dave Brauer’s somewhere in the middle: he hopes regulation and conservation can buy enough aquifer time, til the next innovation game-changer comes to the land of cotton.

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