Drought sparks water war in Texas

(CBS News) DALLAS - The amount of the continental U.S. in drought has fallen slightly over the past week, but the record dry conditions are still intense in the heartland. And in Texas, two-thirds of the state is in drought. It's meant tough choices when water is scarce.

"We've just basically got a barren wasteland here because we didn't have water," said Ron Gertsen, whose family has been growing rice on their Texas land since 1910. But this is their worst year ever.

"So you can drive out across this prairie here and see nothing green for miles in some cases," he said. "It's never, ever been that way."

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Gertsen and other central Gulf Coast rice farmers get much of their water supply from Lake Travis, a reservoir managed by the Lower Colorado River Authority.

Last year, the drought caused lake levels to drop by more than half. So this year, for the first time, state officials cut off most farmers' water supply. Just five percent of the area's normal rice crop will be harvested this year.

"The drought just highlighted a condition that was already coming to be," he said, and then added, "not enough water to go around for everybody to continue doing things in the way that they're used to."

That's because Lake Travis also supplies drinking water for cities including Austin, and supports recreation around the lake, like Janet Caylor's marina. She points out last year, in the middle of the severe drought, nearly 60 percent of the water drained from the lake system went to the farmers.

"They want things to remain as they always were," said Caylor. "That's not the way the world works."

Her marina is losing business. Waterfront homes now sit hundreds of feet away from water.

"There's no question," said Caylor, "that there's a battle going on. Look around you at the devastation of these businesses and the cost. It's immediate and now."

"A drought kind of makes you aware of what you don't have," said Becky Motal, who heads the Lower Colorado River Authority. The agency plans to build new reservoirs to meet demand from a population that could double by 2060, but that will take years.

"As the urban areas grow and they have more of a demand for water, that water's got to come from somewhere," she said.

Ron Gertsen hopes that water will last long enough for his grandson to become a sixth-generation rice farmer.

"I would love for him to have the choice," he said. "I can't say that would be available to him.

Ultimately, he says, he may have to fight for that choice -- not on a farm field, but in a courtroom.

  • Anna Werner

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