Texas Panhandle: Drought is A Good Learning Experience for Communities
By Ellen Green and Panhandle PBS Staff
For a short period in 2011, the Texas Panhandle was the driest spot in the nation with less rainfall than Death Valley. Temperatures here hit 114 degrees. And this spring, after three years of record-breaking drought, daylight often turned to dark when wind-swept dirt filled the air.
It was reminiscent of the Dust Bowl in the thirties and another devastating dry-spell two decades later that hung on for seven years and caused hundreds to give up and leave.
Remarkably, it was those earlier catastrophes that spurred folks to action back in the 50s and has helped the Panhandle and South Plains survive this latest drought by drawing groundwater from one of the world’s largest aquifers — the Ogallala.
“Purchasing water certainly in the Texas Panhandle and the Texas High Plains has been going on for a long time,” said Jarrett Atkinson, Amarillo City Manager. “In Amarillo’s case large scale acquisitions were taking place in the 1950s.”
The people here were among the first to consider water a commodity and to create long-term plans — using a state law called the rule of capture, to buy and sell underground supplies — laying claim to it much like oil and natural gas.
“It is important for our residents, important for our economy, its important to the industry that’s based in and around Amarillo,” Atkinson said.
In addition to the water it owns, Amarillo also gets millions of gallons a day from the Canadian River Municipal Water Authority. CRMWA, as it’s called, was created in the early 50s and delivers water to 11 communities in the Panhandle and South Plains. For decades CRMWAs water supply flowed from an area lake but that began to dry up in 2001.
“That happens to be about the time Lake Meredith took a dive,” said Kent Satterwhite, Canadian River Municipal Water Authority General Manager. “And so we could see the writing on the wall and so in 5 and 6 we started buying more groundwater rights. By the end of 2006, we had more groundwater than anybody in the nation. Any other entity.”
Satterwhite’s group wasn’t finished buying water. In 2011, CRMWA and the city of Amarillo brokered a huge deal with Boone Pickens’ Mesa Water.
How Big? Well, together the city and water authority paid a little more than 100 million dollars to the Texas oilman for 26 million acre feet of water. That translates into an estimated 3 trillion gallons.
“You’ll recall we were already the largest owner in the nation, now we’re twice that,” Satterwhite said. “The timing of it was kind of lucky because it was about water quality but the timing was right …we’d be in trouble without the groundwater.”
“Decades in the future there will be a big decision for Amarillo to make and that will be putting in the infrastructure to go get it,” said Atkinson. “The true cost of buying the water is rarely actually buying the water, it’s the cost of bringing it to where you need it.”
“In today dollars, pipelines big enough to bring that water to town in the amount that we need it would be roughly one million dollars a mile.” he said.
He said that it would have to travel nearly 90 miles.
And there’s another cost to using the Ogallala. Unlike other aquifers this one is non-renewable. Once the water is gone, it’s gone. Recent studies show that, even in wet years, the Ogallala is capable of refilling only a quarter of an inch every 12 months.
“A quarter of an inch — that’s not much recharge,” Atkinson said.
Today, 90 percent of the water taken from the Ogallala in the Panhandle is pumped by those in agribusiness. And, as supplies dwindle, many farmers, are moving to dry-land production.
But the long-term outlook for area communities is better, even with projected population growth.
Both Atkinson and Satterwhite agree, the water should continue to flow to cities here for 150 years.
“Usage is depletion,” said Atkinson. “I think the policy issue for all of us is how do we effectively manage that resource.”
“I’ve heard the comment don’t waste a good drought…we need to use this time to really hammer in that water is critical and we need to conserve it.”
“The rains that we’re having here today, the Ogallala won’t see that for a thousand or more years,” said Satterwhite. “It takes forever for that water to get down there… when we use that water it’s gone in our opinion.”