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California In For Texas-sized Drought

Published: April 15, 2015

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ILLUSTRATION BY PABLO IGLESIAS

Bill Gibson has had some excellent adventures—digging deep into such controversial topics as wolf killing in Montana and oil fracking in North Dakota. In 2011 he turned his attention to another hot topic, the wildfires in his beloved home state of Texas, which were running rampant when he visited twice that year.

“There was hot wind blowing both times I was there. That was the year that Texas burned,” said Gibson, a long-time sociology professor at CSULB. “That was the year there were 31,453 wildfires that burned more than 6,000 square miles.”

The widespread destruction caused by the uncontrollable fires wiped out roughly 300 million trees and compelled individuals to take it upon themselves to feed wildlife such as deer and birds to keep them alive. They had to. There were no seeds. There were no grasses. There were no berries.

Everything had burned and that got Gibson’s attention.

On a later visit he tagged along with a cousin, a fertilizer salesman, as he visited clients. Gibson interviewed farmers on what their lives were like as a result of drought conditions and in the summer of 2013 it looked like many of them were facing the end. The toll on the farmers was heavy, simply because the current drought had been going on for so very long, since 2006.

“It was extremely interesting and extremely foreboding in terms of what the future looked like,” said the ever-curious Gibson. “Once the farming industry closes up the chances of it starting over again are very limited.”

But Texas agriculture got a reprieve, sort of. In the fall of 2013 the state didn’t get the rain it needed to thrive, but it got enough to where a lot of farmers were able to survive. It was at that point Gibson switched his focus to water, more specifically the fights to control it.

“I went from the fires to the farmers to the study of water,” said Gibson, who went on a 10-day, several-hundred-mile odyssey in January 2014 to investigate Texas water issues. “I thought the long-term issues of drought and climate change were going to affect the politics of water in a way that one season of rain wasn’t going to make a whole lot of difference.”

He brings the topic closer to home with a comparison of drought conditions between the union’s two biggest states—Texas and California.

“I think the whole country is going to engage in water conservation more and more as we enter more protracted climate change,” said Gibson. “This is a water war. The most famous example is probably right here in Southern California.”

Gibson referred to series of disputes over Southern California water at the beginning of the 20th Century, by which Los Angeles interests secured water rights in the Owens Valley. According to Gibson, farmers and ranchers along the Owens River were basically hoodwinked out of their water rights, which were acquired through political fighting.

“That is the classic textbook example,” he said. “Roman Polanski’s film ‘Chinatown’ was made out of it.”

Gibson feels what’s going on right now in Texas is a contemporary version of such a water war, where cities and businesses and political establishment are trying to use a regulatory process to claim the river flows in Texas for their own purposes.

“The losers right now are the rural residents and the wildlife,” he said. “There’s so much water being taken that there’s no guarantee there will be a flow.”

The political and economic establishments in Texas have made future plans to grab what water is made available. It is certain to be an ongoing fight.

Rather than recognizing the region’s erratic rains and limited water supplies—and recommending dramatic conservation measures—the Texas state water plan calls for building more dams and pipelines and drilling more aquifers to bring water to the growing cities.

Meanwhile, the Texas establishment, bolstered by the recent oil and gas industry boom, predicts an 82 percent population increase in the next 50 years. That would put the state’s population at roughly with 46 million residents. All those people will need water.

“Texas wants to double its population in the next 50 years,” said Gibson. “It wants to increase the size of its cities, it wants more and more businesses to come and they are afraid if they engage in really strict water conservation it will scare business and out-of-state residents away. They may be right.”

Gibson feels California’s current drought situation is even more ominous than the one in Texas.

“We’re living through a more serious drought at the moment, but the actual water war has not erupted,” he said. “I think California is in a quiet before the storm kind of period. We’re living on water reserves in our reservoirs and we’re living under the assumption that we’re going to have the big snows in the Sierra Nevada and big snows in the Rockies, a watershed of the Colorado River and that all of a sudden everything will be fine, the water will flow again and we’ll be out of the crisis.

“But, if the projections of long-term climate change are accurate that’s not going to change,” he added, “in which case were going to be faced with tremendous water reductions because the reserves won’t be there. I think the whole country is going to engage in water conservation more as we enter more protracted climate change.”

To read about Gibson’s most recent work on L.A.’s urban oil fields and the emerging movements to challenge them recently published in Earth Island Journal, click here.