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How Dry I Am

A Thirsty Land

A Thirsty Land: The Making of an American Water Crisis
By Seamus McGraw

Austin: University of Texas, 2018.
286 pp. $27.95 cloth.

Reviewed by
John Mckiernan-González

G loria Anzaldúa once wrote, “I saw the end of dryland farming. I witnessed the land cleared. I saw the huge pipes connected to underwater sources sticking up in the air… I saw the land, cut up into thousands of neat rectangles and squares, constantly being irrigated.” Anzaldúa hints at the centrality of water, from the South Texas drought that dispossessed her family of the resources to cover property taxes to the new agro-industrial regime that turned the South Texas aquifer into liquid wealth for companies with the capital to exploit this underground water. In A Thirsty Land, Seamus McGraw draws out the liquid underpinnings of the social order in Texas and uncovers the myriad ways a collective and industrial demand for water is undercutting the Spanish legal structure that Texans adopted in the nineteenth century and the Texas Supreme Court repeatedly reaffirmed in the last half of the twentieth century. So, what legal doctrine is bedeviling the shared nature of water in Texas?
   The courts draw a line between surface and underground. Simple. If the water is underground, it belongs to the person that owns the land above—and they have full rights to the water they can pull out of the ground, but it cannot be sold. If the water is above ground, like a puddle, a lake or a river, access rights to the water follow from access to the shoreline of the water, and the acre-feet of water need to be distributed accordingly. Given that water regularly moves between sky and ground, the movement of water from aquifer to river to ocean to sky bedevils the strict legal line separating water from ground.
   Seamus McGraw starts A Thirsty Land with a tantalizing Great Society proposal that would have transformed our understanding of North America. In 1968, the Texas legislature put a proposition in front of the Texas public that proposed to re-channel part of the Mississippi River across Arkansas across the panhandle and have the waters flow directly into the Oglala Aquifer after seeding water into the Brazos, the Red River, the Trinity, the Neches, and the Colorado River watersheds. This canal almost won the support of the majority of voters in the 1968 election, falling short by 684 votes. As he points out, the farming voting base of most Texas legislators led them to propose this grand piece of social engineering. The electoral loss confined this collective drive to make water plentifully available to farmers in North and West Texas to the dustbins of public memory. And the absent memory of this state-wide push to manage water resources in Texas has wreaked havoc on subsequent attempts to make water a regulated commodity and a full public good in Texas. McGraw returns to this theme regularly: the absence of a statewide framework for water leaves sixteen regional river basin managers in charge of negotiating any attempt to move water between water-rich East Texas and water-hungry central and West Texas and between plentiful and parched aquifers. McGraw argues that the combined weight of industry and the political power of urban areas will eventually force the hand of the legislature to create an actual statewide management plan.

   In the meantime, McGraw offers rollicking profiles of people negotiating the challenges of the existing water management authorities in Texas. This is the beating heart of the book. Thirsty Land makes it very clear that McGraw has spent serious amounts of quality time talking to farmers, water utility managers, engineering faculty and everyday people. These conversations illustrate the best of his informants, pulling out the ways they try to negotiate a legal system built for nineteenth century realities but struggling with the twenty-first century floods and droughts we associate with global warming. Texas politician watchers will appreciate his conversations with Jeff and Clayton Williams (yes, Clayton Williams of Ann Richards’s fame) regarding their attempts to transform their ranch’s access to water into a commodity that other parts of their state can use but their water management authority refuses to allow or tax. People interested in the impact of migration on Texas will appreciate the way McGraw describes the impact of midwestern migration to Dallas and Houston, highlighting the many creative ways water utility managers in both cities are finding ingenious ways to extend their access to river water, underground aquifers, desalination plants, brackish (post-fracking) brine. McGraw lends his ears to various Latinos, from the prescient ex-Border Water Commission manager Carlos Rubenstein to Presidio-based Luis Armendariz bemoaning the ways our administration’s unilateral approach to Mexico is cutting off his ability to negotiate water and workers with his counterparts in Mexico. And his informants can turn a phrase, from Shirley Shumake telling McGraw that her decision to challenge the Dallas metroplex’s bid on the water came when she realized that accepting the bid was “the kind of thinking that will get your land took from you.” He points to places where the need to protect water connects environmentalists with timber companies, recently arrived faculty with seventh-generation Texans. By the end of the book, readers will be comfortable with his discussion of re-flow, of purple pipes, with turning a public good like water into a taxable commodity like oil, with pumping the Gulf of Mexico into an aquifer under the City of Dallas, and with the many numerous ways waste treatment water can become shower water, dish water and even water for our lawns. Readers will put the book down with a sense of urgency, a set of strategies, and a feeling of hope.
   In the history of the American West, scholars such as Donald Wooster and Marc Reisner highlight the disproportionate impact of the entrenched power of farmers and the Army Corps of Engineers have over different water supplies in California and the western United State. McGraw, like ecological Mike Davis, has a faith in the impact a redistribution of political resources will have on the distribution of nature in each society. Time – and a measured access to safer water – will tell who struck the right tone.

John Mckiernan-González is the Editor-in-Chief of Texas Books in Review and Southwestern American Literature. He is the director of the Center for the Study of the Southwest.