Austin’s thirst affects farmers, birds in South Texas
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 email@example.com.
— Dawn Cobb, managing editor
MATAGORDA COUNTY — A green tractor moves slowly through a dirt field in the Mad Island Marsh Preserve, pulling a disk plow that churns and breaks up black clods of dried soil and stubble.
It’s winter, the grain has been harvested and several hundred acres are being prepared for another growing season on this 7,000-acre habitat along Matagorda Bay. As recently as two years ago, the fields were submerged in water, making them fertile ground for growing rice. They served as marsh for countless geese, egrets, herons and ducks that feasted on the harvested seed.
G.W. Franzen, 56, who has farmed this land since the 1980s, recalls the beauty of the birds as they arrived each fall and winter in majestic V formations. Their morning trills and honking calls would greet him as he worked the land.
The birds knew they could depend on the rice fields to wade, roost and recharge before continuing on.
“Being out in the field every day, you could see the glories of nature — the beautiful critters, the ducks and geese and, yes, even the blackbirds — there was a peace in that,” he says.
But the rice fields are gone from the preserve, at least for now. There hasn’t been enough rain in Texas to irrigate the water-intensive crop. Franzen has had no choice but to plow under the rice fields and plant milo or dry grain sorghum. Scientists are still assessing whether the vast new fields of milo and sorghum will attract the tens of thousands of migrating birds that have nested and stopped to feed in South Texas for decades.
What scientists have no doubt about is that the drought has sharply diminished the bird population in recent years, a trend that has them deeply worried about mankind’s future.
“Watch our birds; they’re telling us something,” says Brent Ortego, a diversity biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “They’re like the canary we send into the mines. If it doesn’t come out, we’re in trouble.”
In another coastal area of South Texas, birds have died as a result of the recent drought. A federal judge in March 2013 ruled that a water management decision by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to withhold freshwater inflows to the San Antonio and Aransas bays led to the death of 23 federally protected endangered whooping cranes between November 2008 and April 2009.
Officials said many of the wading cranes were juvenile birds that wandered the roads of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge searching desperately for food. A federal ruling that ordered the development of a conservation plan that would lead to additional freshwater inflow for the bays was appealed by TCEQ to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Oral arguments were heard in August, and a decision is pending on the appeal.
“Unfortunately, there are still people in Texas who believe that not one drop of freshwater should go to the bays, that the water is better kept up in Austin to give to the industries and that it’s wasted if it goes beyond the urban areas to the bays,” says Charles Irvine, an attorney for the Aransas Project, which sued on behalf of the bays and bird habitats.
The project is an alliance of citizens, organizations, businesses and municipalities that wants responsible water management for the Guadalupe River basin and bays.
“Bad habitats in the bays impact everyone, from wildlife to tourism to fishing to the entire economy,” Irvine said.
Up the coast, Julie Sullivan, a former preserve manager who now is coordinator of coastal restoration for the Nature Conservancy, which oversees Mad Island, remembers a time a few years ago when she would walk through the grassland and “birds would come flying out everywhere.”
“They would cover the sky,” she said. “You don’t see as many birds anymore.”
As the marshes disappear, dry driftwood, scraggly Hackberry trees, cacti and brush have taken over. The preserve looks more like drought-stricken West Texas than a coastal paradise. Cattle brought here many years ago to graze on the area’s expanse of coastal prairie grass, cordgrass and other native grasses have been trimmed back to alleviate the stress they were putting on the water-starved land.
Native plants like the Carolina wolfberry that once flourished along the Texas coast aren’t budding as much with the drought. That means the plants’ fleshy red berries, relished by whooping cranes and other wild fowl, are in short supply.
Less food means fewer birds, and fewer birds mean more rodents and mosquitoes.
Less water means fewer alligators. Barren fields attract non-native, destructive plants. Birds that depend on water to protect them from ground prey as they roost and nest in trees are looking elsewhere. Lack of freshwater makes grass prone to burnout from too much saltwater.
Despite those alarming developments, Sonia Najera, the conservancy’s South Texas program manager, points out that the coastal habitat is resilient, proving over the years it can survive droughts and other stressful climactic conditions. “Everything works together as a system,” she said.
The preserve isn’t on an island like its name implies. It’s a coastal prairie situated off the Gulf of Mexico, southwest of Bay City.
“We are having to change the way we manage the land,” says preserve manager Steve Goertz, pointing out a chain of dry canals that have been dug to irrigate the land.
The canals fill up with water when it rains and when water becomes available upstream. Mostly, they’re empty, filled with dry grass and cacti.
Goertz joined about 50 students, scientists and bird enthusiasts who gathered at the preserve for the annual Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count. Armed with binoculars and notepads, they fanned out across the preserve to observe and photograph birds. For 14 of the past 15 years, birders in a 15-mile diameter around the preserve have identified the most species of birds in a single day in the nation. They kept their title this year, identifying 228 species, but it is the group’s lowest tally since 1999.
Relief in the form of 10 inches of rain arrived in the fall and some freshwater inflows were released from upstream, but it was too late for the breeding season, according to Ortego, the TPWD biologist. “Wide-open bays with no birds were a pretty common scene during the count,” he wrote in this year’s report.
Data collected after the 2011 bird count raise eyebrows in the close-knit community of birders and scientists. Downward trends continue for geese, down 79 percent from the 20-year average. Only about 10,000 geese were observed, compared with counts in 2010 of hundreds of thousands, if not millions. Sandhill cranes also declined, down 76 percent from the 20-year average.
More birds that normally migrate to South Texas for the winter are staying in North Texas or changing their routes to travel south into Mexico or to areas to the east and west, says Rich Kostecke, the conservancy’s Texas associate director of conservation and research. “The numbers of wetland birds are shifting, and it’s telling us something we should pay attention to,” he said.
Drought changing lives
As birds fly to different fields foraging for food, the farmers who remain are trying to survive.
“The drought has completely changed lives — the birds’ and ours,” Franzen said. “All our lives, we’ve farmed rice. The land was made for it. It’s what we do. Now we can’t because of the drought.”
The farmers not only look for rain in their area but their eyes are on the Hill Country, where they get much of their irrigation water. The levels there are so low around Austin that the Lower Colorado River Authority, which had been supplying irrigation for South Texas farmers since the 1930s, initiated an emergency drought plan that cut off most agricultural downstream supplies in 2012 and 2013.
Beginning two years ago, it was the first time in the 70-plus-year history of the authority that downstream irrigation was cut. Even during the drought of the 1950s, known as the Big Dry-Up, state water regulators didn’t feel the need to take such drastic measures. TCEQ decided to extend the curtailment into 2014 in response to the lack of rainfall and low water levels in Lakes Travis and Buchanan near Austin.
As Austin grows in population and the drought bears down on the Hill Country, water levels in the lakes have dipped to 38 percent this year. Boat ramps are high and dry.
“This drought is historic — worse than we’ve ever seen,” says Lower Colorado River Authority spokeswoman Clara Tuma. “There is pain and hardship in the basin. So many people in the cities and farmlands are hurting.”
Ray Stoesser, president of the Texas Rice Council, said that when he began farming about 40 years ago there were 630,000 acres of rice harvested each year in Texas. Today there are 160,000 acres.
“Rice is an important crop for people and the habitat,” says the 65-year-old third-generation farmer, whose two sons also farm rice. “Without it, the bird population is disappearing.”
His farms are east of Houston where 65 inches of rain falls each year. The hardest-hit farmers are west of Houston in the three largest rice-producing counties of the state — Matagorda, Wharton and Colorado counties, where less than 40 inches of precipitation is recorded annually.
Ronald Gertson, a 54-year-old fourth-generation Wharton County rice farmer whose father and three brothers farm rice, checks on a water well he recently drilled to help maintain his 3,000-acre crop. But most farmers can’t afford to drill new wells into the Gulf Coast Aquifer, Gertson said, and new wells have to be drilled too close to cracked beds of clay that could collapse from overuse.
He feels morally torn about digging into the precious depths of the Earth for water, but he has to make a living. Since the Lower Colorado River Authority in Austin began cutting off downstream water two years ago, farmers have been tilling under their crops and losing their farms. Since 2012, a John Deere dealership, a rice sales office and a rice drying business in Wharton County all closed their doors, Gertson said.
Large landowners who lease farms to rice farmers and hunting lodges are losing business. Fish and other aquatic creatures depend on the runoff from rice fields for healthy estuaries. An industry that regularly contributes $500 million per year to the state economy could collapse if the drought persists and water supplied by Austin-area lakes is cut off much longer.
Gertson, who serves on the regional Water Issues Committee with the Lower Colorado River Authority and the Texas Rice Producers Legislative Group, which lobbies for rice farmers in the state’s water plan, says the drought is the worst he’s seen, but he thinks the river authority may be overreacting.
In past years, the authority set a 55 percent lake level as a benchmark for deciding to curtail the water sent downstream. Commissioners say they will continue to watch the skies for relief, but farmers say the need for freshwater to be sent downstream is urgent.
“They’re wanting their lakes to be more than half full before the farmers get one drop, and that’s going too far — it’s not right,” Gertson said. “No one likes to see brown golf courses, and restoring lake levels for recreational use will mean a shot in the arm for the economy. But what about the farms and habitats? That’s something you can’t replace.”
The authority is feverishly working on plans and construction of a new reservoir near Lane City in Wharton County by 2017. The reservoir would be able to be filled and used multiple times over the course of a year. The preliminary cost estimate for the lake is $206 million.
Stoesser said he hopes his grandsons will follow in his footsteps and farm rice. Looking for better ways to farm, many farmers are contributing part of their proceeds to the Texas Rice Research Foundation to fund research and development of drought-resistant seeds and farming methods.
“Our climate is changing, and we’re having to adapt,” Stoesser said.
Scientists studying the Mad Island Marsh Preserve say they can’t say for certain what the long-term impact of the drought will be on the coastal habitat and the birds.
“Ecology can be messy, and rarely is there a straightforward, black-and-white answer,” says Kostecke, with the Nature Conservancy.
Finding, counting and photographing birds is hardly an exact science, as the students, scientists and birders who gathered at the preserve discovered. Bird counters rose from cots, air mattresses and couches scattered in buildings throughout the preserve and loaded into vehicles or walked the trails.
Other volunteers in the 15-mile circle searched around a chemical plant, the cooling ponds of a nuclear power facility and the wooded banks of the Colorado River. They looked for birds such as cormorants and kingfishers. Several cardinals, which have been down in recent years by almost 20 percent, were spotted. Finding a purple gallinule would be nice.
Bea Harrison crouched and lifted binoculars to her eyes shaded under a baseball cap, watching and cocking her ears for any little sound or flutter of leaves.
The eerie, desperate trill of a screech owl warning of approaching predators summoned songbirds from the grasses to the protection of treetops. Little did they know that the sound was coming from Bea’s cellphone, a modern alternative to the traditional wooden duck whistle.
Bea’s husband, Jim, gave calls of “phump phump” to summon more birds.
Sparrows flittered through the brush and landed on branches. Just as Bea focused her camera on a limb, the whoosh of wings could be heard overhead as the wide, pearlescent wings of a barn owl disappeared into the sunlight.
Bea scrambled to make note of her find.
Jim and Bea Harrison have lived much of their lives in the Pacific Northwest. Like the birds, they spend most of their winters in South Texas. While Jim draws and paints birds, Bea writes poems about them.
“A flock of geese flew overhead today,” she said with excitement. “But I remember a time when there were millions of them, just millions. We have to look harder now. I worry what habitat will be left in the future for my granddaughter to see.”
It’s the same sentiment Bea has expressed in verse:
“So, eyes to the skies; And work for the promise; Of millions of kettles; For years yet to come.”
A half-dozen bird enthusiasts headed for the fields in search of nocturnal birds. Headlight beams carved a path for two all-terrain vehicles that plunged through the dark marsh. Rumbling engines broke the midnight calm, scattering birds from their rest.
“There’s some sparrows … and willets … over there,” someone called out.
Kostecke pounced on each and every flutter of wings, punctuating his commands for the driver to forge ahead, or hit the brakes.
The bird scientist swirled around in his front-seat perch, fixing his eyes along the rays of a headlamp strapped across his winter beanie. “Sora, there’s a sora,” he said as he recorded the appearance of the tiny marsh fowl identified by its distinctive call.
Students, biologists and other avian lovers sloshed through the water in rubber waders, well-thumbed bird books tucked in their back pockets. They jabbed the dark with handheld spotlights in search of more feathered prizes.
This year, the marsh had to be flooded artificially to promote the waterfowl habitat that the rice fields once supported.
At the end of this year’s count, the bird team finished with a tally of 146 species, about the same as last year. The total count from the 15-mile area was 228 species, a bit below average but still the highest in the nation, Kostecke said.
Most species of geese, duck and cranes continue to be low, he said. Freshwater wetland habitat is not as extensive as it was in some of the years prior to the 2011 drought. There are a lot of variables to take into account. Maybe they had a bad breeding year, so fewer birds are migrating south. Maybe it is staying warm up north, which could cause birds to cut their trip short.
A volunteer was able to flush one elusive, mouse-size black rail from the grasses in the bird count area, and Kostecke’s midnight exploration of the marshes did yield one surprise.
Jumping from the seat of a moving ATV, he ran across a field as several birds flew out of the grass. One of the birders was crouched in the field holding a tiny brown bird with feathers edged in white. Its yellow breast was heaving. Its eye, banded with a yellow streak, gleamed in Kostecke’s headlamp.
Closer examination confirmed an elusive marsh bird known as the yellow rail. Maybe 17,500 remain in the wild, according to the National Audubon Society. Few people ever see them in flight, and even fewer see them on the ground. They often scamper for cover when approached, but this bird flew into the lap of the birder.
“This is special,” Kostecke said. “Our habitat still holds some wonderful treasures.”