EDITORIAL: All or nothing

South Texas needs to plan for wet and dry conditions

It doesn’t take a hurricane to wreak havoc on South Texas; as we have seen in recent years, a few days of steady rain can cause flooding and damage that can take years to overcome. That fact, and the attention that recent flooding in Houston has drawn from state legislators, has brought a healthy amount of aid to our area.

However, ours is a land of extremes, and as local officials write new budgets and begin planning their legislative agendas ahead of the 87th session that begins in January, they should consider the need to mitigate damage from drought as well as storms. Smart planning can combine the two, if drainage systems incorporate cisterns to hold water for irrigation.

Recent rains were a godsend, breaking dry conditions that already were drifting from extreme drought conditions near the coast to exceptional drought in Starr and Zapata counties, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center. Summer forecasters are predicting a wet summer for the Rio Grande Valley, and although that could mean flooding and the blight and disease it can cause in our many colonias, many people hope it’s true.

Such is the lot of residents in the Valley, where predictions of a busy hurricane season can be considered good news. Locals know that hurricanes hit hard, but we usually see them coming and can prepare as best we can, and they leave as quickly as they come. Drought is much more insidious; we don’t realize we’re in it until the damage already is being done, and not knowing how long it will last can wear on our collective psyche.

But this heavily agricultural region knows how drought can devastate our crops and our economy. Dry conditions have cost us billions over the years. The severe 2010-2015 drought cost our state’s economy nearly $10 billion; the dry 1990s led many growers to change crops or use varieties that required less irrigation. Ranchers sold off massive amounts of stock and even burned thorns off of cacti so their remaining herds would have something to eat.

That’s where we appeared to be headed earlier this year; Valley counties received less than one inch of rain in January and March was worse. No water meant no grass for grazing, and ranchers again had to sell off parts of their stock and use the money to buy feed for the rest.

Unfortunately, drought in South Texas has often been treated like the proverbial hole in the roof that floods the house when it’s raining but doesn’t need to be fixed when it isn’t. In the midst of droughts officials and other community members have talked about the need to improve water conservation methods — something as simple as lining irrigation canals or even replacing them with piping. In the mid-1990s when the Amistad and Falcon reservoir holdings were going dry, people talked about building a 1,000mile pipeline from the Valley to the Sabine River on the Louisiana border in case the Rio Grande ran out of water completely.

Certainly, the COVID-19 pandemic has had its own effect on our economy, and the revenues that legislators will be able to allocate next year. Still, drought mitigation should always be on our officials’ minds, and local budgets and state requests should reflect that thinking.