Cash crop brings prosperity at cost of depleting water supply
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Denton Record-Chronicle staff and graduate students from the University of North Texas School of Journalism under the direction of professor George Getschow worked more than a year interviewing people across Texas and researching the issue of how people are using water, the state of this necessary resource and how some are searching for solutions. The series launches an ongoing effort to keep readers informed about how the drought is affecting daily lives across the state and how some are seeking alternative measures to solve a growing issue as the drought continues and the state attracts more residents. Look for the “Water Woes” logo throughout the next week and coming weeks and months. And, if you have any suggestions, ideas or stories of your own to share, please visit our special projects page on Facebook or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Dawn Cobb, managing editor
KNOX COUNTY — Chris Brown helps his two grandsons down from the cab of his rumbling John Deere combine into a fluffy, white patch of cotton. Dozens of cotton fields just like Brown’s form what looks like a low-lying cloud across the landscape that stretches to the horizon.
Dried cotton stems crack under the boots of the two boys as they line up behind their lanky grandfather. A maze of 50-foot-high, half-mile-long irrigation pipework stretches across an adjacent cotton field, but the boys don’t notice the dank smell of the soaked soil on their way out of the field.
Larry Tomlinson’s Chevrolet 2500 pickup pulls up behind Brown and his grandsons on FM267, the main road from Munday to Rhineland. Tomlinson is the manager of the Rhineland Cooperative Cotton Gin, which cleans, dries and sells most of the cotton produced in Knox and surrounding counties in Texas.
Brown grins and reaches out a cracked hand to greet his white-haired friend, who limps toward him on new titanium knees his doctor insisted were needed to replace the worn-out ones.
“You bring any rain?” he asked with a smirk.
“Nah, I left it at home. I’ll run by and get it after work,” Tomlinson said chuckling.
Though they like to joke about the lack of rainfall, for Brown and all the cotton farmers in the region, it’s no laughing matter. Knox County, population 3,800, is literally running out of water.
Four Knox County water suppliers have less than 180 days of water, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which monitors water suppliers across the state.
The public water systems running out of water include Rhineland Water Supply Corp., Knox City, the city of Munday and the North Central Texas Municipal Water Authority, which supplies water to seven towns in Knox County and three in Haskell County.
Knox County’s two main water sources have been drained for years. Millers Creek Reservoir has lost more than 10,000 acre-feet of water in the last decade, equivalent to 3.26 million gallons or a month’s worth of water for the 843,000 residents of Austin. About half of that water has been drained since 2011.
The region’s underground water source has also been badly depleted. The Seymour Aquifer, used primarily for irrigation, has dropped several feet in the last few years, turning cotton farmers’ water wells into dry holes.
“Our wells are going to hell,” Brown said.
The Texas Water Development Board doesn’t see the Seymour’s water levels improving in the years ahead. In fact, it predicts water levels will decline another 30 feet within the next decade.
How did Knox County get itself in such a fix? By hitching its wagon to King Cotton.
Ever since W.A. Earnest built a cotton gin in Munday in 1900, farmers have counted on cotton as their cash crop, expanding production year after year. Knox County ginned 16,000 cotton bales in 1915, 30,000 bales in 1950 and 60,000 bales in 2011.
High prices and high yields brought increased prosperity to Knox County. Cotton farmers didn’t think twice about shelling out $600,000 for a new combine or a half-million dollars to buy more acreage to expand their cotton kingdom.
But what they didn’t think enough about was how much water they were using to grow all that cotton. One 60-acre cotton field requires 72 million gallons of water. That’s the amount of water used by the city of Denton, with a population of 121,000, for four-and-a-half days.
Now, after draining their underground aquifer through rampant irrigation during the last 50 years, farmers such as Brown concede they have squandered their most precious resource, leaving themselves high and dry.
“We usually run close to 1,000 acres of irrigated cotton, but I’m down to 700 and I need to cut again,” Brown said. “I cut about 100 acres from last year. Some of that we cut, we weren’t making good cotton anyway. We just didn’t have the water to make it. We might not ever again here pretty soon.”
Cotton drains Munday
For 25 years, Tomlinson has traversed winding farm roads to visit with his 40 customers, mostly lifetime farmers located within 15 miles of his office on Rhineland’s Square.
The husky, white-bearded manager of the local cotton gin known as “The Coop” gets the scoop on every farmer in the county as he makes his rounds. He knows if their cotton production is up or down, if their water wells are failing and if their relatives are fighting again.
They’ll discuss which fertilizers produce the highest yields, what their children are up to or not up to and “those dang fuel prices” that keep rising. But a topic that none of the farmers care to talk about but which keeps surfacing like the boll weevil — the most destructive cotton pest in American history — is water, or rather the lack of it.
Water experts say it’s only a matter of days before Munday and all of Knox County run out of water.
On June 12, 2012, Munday entered Stage 1 of its Drought Contingency Plan and is currently listed with less than 180 days of stored water, according to TCEQ, which regulates water resources in Texas.
The town was listed in the “Concern” water use category with moderate water restrictions as of Oct. 18, 2013 — meaning Munday has 180 days of stored water and restricts all outdoor water usage except by handheld hoses with manual nozzles and for livestock.
Despite the tough water-use restrictions in place for residential users to deal with the meager 5 to 6 inches of rainfall that fell on Knox County last year, farmers keep drilling additional wells to pump 250 to 600 gallons of water per minute to nourish their thirsty crops.
Mike McGuire manages the Rolling Plains Groundwater Conservation District, which regulates groundwater usage for Baylor, Knox and Haskell counties. The district requires a permit for wells with casings greater than 5 inches in diameter.
McGuire says he receives roughly 300 water-drilling permits per county each year. Folks in their part of the country, he said, keep drilling wells in their backyard as if there’s plenty of water in the area’s underground reservoir to tap into.
But there isn’t much water left, McGuire said, pointing to the Texas Water Development Board’s prediction that the Seymour will lose another 30 feet in the next decade as an understatement of the magnitude of the water crisis.
“If it drops 30 feet, we won’t have the Seymour,” McGuire said. “There’s not 30 feet to begin with.”
Cotton has been the cash cow of Munday ever since Earnest built the town’s first cotton gin — seven years after the town was established — in 1900. Though a nearby gin in Rhineland opened two years before, Munday enjoyed the fruits of much higher cotton production and the discovery of nearby oilfields in 1945.
New settlers, seeking to cash in on the cotton boom, poured into Munday. Its population swelled from 1,545 in 1940 to 2,270 in 1950.
The population boom and above-average rainfall during the next two decades inspired Knox County farmers to look for new avenues of prosperity. They decided vegetables would become their next cash cow.
For a while, growing vegetables in Knox County seemed like a smart thing to do. The venerable Texas A&M University opened a vegetable research center in town in 1971. That led to the idea to make Munday the state’s “veggie capital.” But the project lost funding and the center was shut down in April 2003.
Munday City Manager Ricky Ake has a simple explanation for what went wrong. “Cotton brings in more money,” he said.
Cotton averaged 89 cents per pound last year, bringing in about $14,000 for a module, which holds 13 to 15 bales of cotton in a fluffy 32-by-7.5 foot block. Wheat currently sells for about 47 cents a pound. Currently, cotton is bringing almost 92.5 cents per pound.
Ake farmed for a few years before going into city management. So he fully understands that farmers need water to make a living. But now, as city manager, he has higher priorities than just helping the area’s cotton farmers to prosper.
Munday itself could die, he suggests, if he and other planners can’t find a way to save the Millers Creek Reservoir and the Seymour Aquifer — the town’s two main water sources.
When Millers Creek was dammed in 1974, most folks in Baylor, Throckmorton or Knox counties weren’t optimistic that the man-made reservoir would ever supply enough water to meet their immediate needs, or ever reach its full capacity. But as if by the will of Neptune, a flash flood inundated the area with 17 inches of rain and filled the reservoir to its capacity of 25,500 acre-feet of water.
Today, Millers Creek Reservoir is the main residential water source for seven surrounding towns, including the city of Munday and each of the three other Knox County suppliers on the TCEQ priority list.
Water levels in the Millers Creek Reservoir dropped at least 4 feet in a single year. Currently, the lake sits at 12.5 percent of capacity, according to the Texas Water Development Board website, http://bit.ly/RxCqdD. A year ago, the lake was at 22.8 percent capacity.
Ninety percent of water from the Seymour Aquifer is used for crop irrigation. But today, so much water is being pumped out of the aquifer through thousands of wells that have been drilled into it that experts expect it to run dry within the next decade, if not before.
Ake and other planners are considering restricting the number of additional wells that can be drilled into the Seymour.
Some farmers in a neighboring county are claiming they drilled under the Seymour and found “an ocean of water” underneath. But Ake and others aren’t convinced the ocean exists. Until he and other planners find a long-term solution, Ake said he and the city of Munday will rely on another plan: praying for rain.
“If the good Lord doesn’t give us some rain, we’re gonna be in trouble,” Ake said.
The city of Weinert, Munday’s neighbor 10 miles south on U.S. Highway 277, is also running out of water. During the pummeling drought that knocked every farmer and rancher in Texas on their knees in 2011, water levels in Weinert’s wells drawing from the Seymour dropped nearly 1 foot a day — until the town had just one month of water left.
Six months ago, the TCEQ put Weinert on a “Priority Stage 3” public water systems list that further restricts water usage. That’s because the town has less than 90 days of water left and has had to reduce its water consumption significantly.
“Our customers have cut 50 percent of their normal usage since restrictions were put in place,” said Patricia Horan, Weinert’s city secretary.
Area farmers raise wheat, maize and livestock. But cotton is the king of Weinert, too. The town draws its water from the Seymour Aquifer and two wells located about seven miles north of town.
But underground water from the Seymour and from the two town wells is so badly depleted that some farmers are resorting to pumping water from ponds to keep their crops alive.
With its water supplies in imminent danger of running out, Weinert sought “emergency permission” from the TCEQ to drill another well. Construction was completed just before the town ran out of water. The new well held just 26 feet of water, but it bought Weinert time to come up with a long-term solution to its water crisis.
Weinert applied for an emergency drought relief grant that is now funding construction of a pipeline to the Miller Creek Reservoir through the North Central Texas Municipal Water Authority.
“We will be blending our well water with their lake water and hope that they do not run out,” Horan said.
But these desperate measures leave Weinert’s farmers without enough water to produce crops on either irrigated or dry land fields. The city received some relief in late September when rainfall lifted water levels in area wells 7 to 12 inches for two consecutive weeks.
Consequently, on Oct. 14, 2013, the TCEQ downgraded Weinert to Stage 4 restrictions. Stage 4 prohibits residents from filling their pools and washing their vehicles, but it allows residents to water landscapes two hours for two days each week. The Stage 4 restrictions don’t apply to agricultural irrigation.
“Where this crisis is headed, I don’t think anyone really knows,” Horan said. “With the weather predictions of the drought possibly staying around for three to five more years, it does not look very promising.”
Prayers for water
Brown grabs a tuft of cotton that had fluttered from the sky and rubs it between his dirty index finger and thumb. He drops the fluff ball and reminisces about when he started farming cotton on his own when he was 21.
Today, 30 years later, he says farming cotton is a difficult, dirty job but one that’s been good to him. It’s afforded him a house, enough money to support his family, and some close friends he will trade Texas A&M and Texas Tech football jokes with for the rest of his life. But Brown is glad his children aren’t cotton farmers.
“Knowing the hard work I put into it and how bad our water situation is, I didn’t want them to get into it,” he said.
As for his own future, Brown has little choice but to keep pumping water from his four wells to keep his cotton crop and his family going. It’s the way of the farmer to get the job done, using any means necessary. And that includes prayer, Brown said.
Right now he’s praying there will still be water left in his wells to irrigate next season.