My brother Phil wrote the cover story for the March/April/May issue of the Washington Monthly: Oops: The Texas Miracle That Isn’t. Now comes another major look at the downside of Rick Perry’s Texas from Paul Solotaroff in Men’s Journal Magazine.
This one focuses primarily on the issue of water supply, particularly the increasing need to use groundwater rather than surface water because of the endless drought and higher temperatures associated with climate change. In Texas, unlike any other state, landowners have the right to extract any amount of groundwater from wells on their property. And, just as with oil wells, you can drain the water from your neighbor’s property. This concept was explained well in the Oscar-winning movie There Will Be Blood.
In that clip, Daniel Day Lewis explains how he “drank your milkshake” by using a bigger straw to drain the oil beneath his neighbor’s land. That same exact phenomenon is going on all over Texas with groundwater, as those with the money to invest are sucking the aquifers dry and selling the (expensive) water to the cities. Meanwhile, people are drinking wastewater from Austin, filled with too much estrogen from birth control pills.
Like most of her neighbors in this brown-collar town [Bastrop, Texas] of mechanics and landscape workers, [Linda] 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.”
Meanwhile, we have clowns like Texas congressman Joe Barton who famously argued in 2009 that wind is a “finite resource” that is slowed down by harvesting it for energy, which causes temperature to rise. Rick Perry insisted during his humiliating and disastrous 2012 presidential campaign that climate change is a hoax.
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.
Pretty soon, it will be commonplace for many Texans to get their water the same way NASA’s astronauts do: by treating their own wastewater.
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.”
When Texans are all drinking their own pee, they better figure out how to get that estrogen out of it. Based on their record so far, their most likely solution will be to ban birth control and pray for the best.