By Jeremy Walther
Photography by Holly Henderson
When traveling east to west along Interstate 10 somewhere near Sonora, the transition is sensed more than observed. The color of the spring-fed woods and rolling grasslands gradually dissolves, quietly and subtly, like a loved one aging. The ashe junipers still blanket the hills and the prairie grasses still sway in the breeze, but something just feels different about the land. It’s older, more weathered, and the desperate, harsh reality of the land’s true self is slowly exposed.
This meandering swath of a transition zone connects Brackettville to San Angelo along U.S. Route 277 during normal years. It inches east toward U.S. Route 83 during dry years and west toward Texas Route 163 in wet years. Here, the soft beauty of the Hill Country ends and the rugged, cosmic attraction of the Chihuahuan Desert begins.
This land is the front line of the effects of drought in our part of the state. Last summer, at the peak of one of the worst droughts on record, even the most characteristic plant of Central Texas, the ashe juniper, experienced excessive die-off. Some say that the desert didn’t inch into the Hill Country that year, it exploded.
The Highland Lakes dropped to their lowest levels since their construction in the 1940s. For the first time in the history of the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), rice farmers in South Texas will not receive their annual surge of river water this summer to irrigate their fields. Agricultural customers use 60 percent of the water available from the Highland Lakes and the Colorado River, and farmers pay lower rates for water under contracts that are classified as interruptible (subject to rationing or curtailment) by LCRA in times of extreme drought.
A similar interruption was predicted for urban backyard gardeners throughout Central Texas, as lake levels, and the directly related trigger points for mandatory water reductions, continued to drop last summer. But as we approach a new summer season, the threat of the dreaded Stage 3 water restrictions from the City of Austin—which would outlaw most forms of outdoor watering—doesn’t loom as close, partly because of recent spring rains but more from the sacrifice of rural water users like rice farmers in South Texas.
The summer of 2011 was a wake-up call, and all signs point to similar crises in future years.
Are we moving toward the desertification of Central Texas? What does this mean for the future of local agriculture? How can our region balance increased pressures on resources and the protection of regional food security and sustainable local agriculture?
2011 DROUGHT—FROM OUTLIER TO AVERAGE
“Last summer was rather warm,” understates John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas State Climatologist. “Austin’s October-to-September rainfall and June-to-August temperature last year doesn’t match the average of any place in the United States. You have to go to west-central Pakistan to find the closest example.”
But was last summer simply an outlier, a fluke, something that the old-timers of 2061 will talk about as a year to remember?
“Not exactly,” says Dr. Kerry Cook, climate-systems scientist with the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas. Dr. Cook has collaborated with other climate-prediction experts to develop state-of-the-art weather projections for Central Texas through 2050.
“Projections like these are starting to be done on regional spaces scales of about twenty miles,” says Cook. “They provide a resolution that takes supercomputers months to generate—giving information that is useful for thinking about current and near-future impacts of climate change…. Climate simulations are never perfect because the climate system is so complex, but we are confident that the model projections are about as accurate as they can be.”
Cook’s results suggest we can expect more summers like last year’s in the coming half-century. “Within the next fifty years, we predict that Central Texas will experience an increase of almost fifty percent in the number of one-hundred-plus degree days in July and August…in June and September, more than twice as many,” says Cook.
In other words, if Austin currently averages about 42 days that exceed 100 degrees, last year’s record 89 days above 100 will become more and more common over the next half-century.
Projections for precipitation seem less apocalyptic. “Our models do not show increases in intense precipitation events for our region, but they do indicate that precipitation amounts will decrease by five to ten percent annually, with ten- to fifteen-percent decreases in spring and summer,” says Dr. Cook. “But if we combine these precipitation decreases with the increases in evaporation associated with warmer temperatures, water availability is projected to decrease by twenty percent.”
These changes for mid-century are significant, but they don’t exactly predict that Austin will turn into a Phoenix by 2050. By mid-century, the average annual temperature of Austin is predicted to increase 2.7 degrees, and annual precipitation is predicted to decrease from about 32 inches to 30 inches. “These changes will be felt by everyone,” predicts Cook, “and will affect local agriculture, ecosystems and people.”
She concedes that we would still experience cold enough winters and enough rain to preserve our terrior for the most part, but emphasizes that climate change is serious and imminent and stresses the importance of modifying our behavior to deal with it. “Beyond 2050, trends [in temperature and precipitation] will continue unless greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere are reduced. We all have a part to play in making this happen, and in keeping Austin cool.”
THE CITY OF AUSTIN—GROWTH PUTS PRESSURE ON WATER RESOURCES AND LOCAL FOOD PRODUCTION
The future of Central Texas might not be tumbleweeds and saguaros, but periodic drought and increased pressure on water resources are—and will continue to be—a hard reality. The City of Austin projects Austin’s population to almost double from 2008 levels by 2040—to about 1.5 million straws in an already taxed water resource.
“The Austin Water Utility (AWU) definitely plans for that population growth in water policy,” explains Jacob Johnson, conservation program specialist for AWU. “And we’re prepared for that increase in water use.”
That policy of being prepared means making sure we all have enough water to drink and bathe with, though not necessarily to grow food with.
“When the current water policy was developed, Stage 3 water restriction was reserved for catastrophic events, like a treatment-plant shutdown, not necessarily severe drought,” says Johnson. So when lake levels last summer were approaching those seen during the worst drought on record, the entire city was facing a ban on all outdoor watering, and an end to almost every vegetable garden in the city, including those whose very existence was a direct result of a 2009 Austin City Council mandate to establish community gardens on public lands.
“Obviously, severe watering restrictions don’t exactly encourage local food production, so AWU responded by offering a variance specifically for vegetable gardeners in Austin,” says Johnson.
The variance was a quick fix—a solution to allow AWU customers to water areas of food production anytime with drip systems or soaker hoses. It also eased restrictions on aboveground watering systems for food gardens. But since weather models show more summers like that of 2011 in our future, and as more water users flood into Austin, quick fixes will only go so far.
“The City of Austin is not the biggest user of LCRA water,” says David Greene, climate program coordinator for the City, “but we are the most conservative municipal water user. The City is offering aggressive rebates right now on residential and commercial rainwater-collection systems—for example, up to one dollar per stored gallon.”
These kinds of programs can help change the culture of how Austinites use water, which is needed as the local food system of Austin matures. As Austin experiences denser growth and reduced water availability, it will require increased resilience by all of us who use water.
This includes gardeners and farmers growing our food. To Jake Stewart, who helped launch the Austin Climate Protection Program and now leads the City’s Sustainable Urban Agriculture and Community Garden Program (SUACG), the pressure on local producers to feed a fast-growing Austin population will only increase as fuel prices and other influences force up global food prices. Compounded with hotter, drier summers and regional water issues, gardeners and farmers will have their work cut out for them.
“As demands to increase local food security rub against increased pressures to our local water supply, we will see people come up with innovative, brilliant, creative ways to deal with drought. It’s already happening,” says Stewart. Put into place on the recommendation of the Sustainable Food Policy Board (which advises the City of Austin and Travis County) in 2010, the modest SUACGP program lacks budget resources but is working to support more than just community gardens and urban farming on City-owned land; other projects are in the works, from a food-forest initiative to a veteran training program that integrates returning military personnel into the urban agriculture workforce.
“The City of Austin is a place of innovation,” says Stewart. “There are current members of the local agricultural community who are already way ahead of their time. They’re the ones innovating in a tough climate. They’re the ones who will lead us into the future. We need to do all we can to support them.”
MEET SOME INNOVATORS
Lanelle Montgomery got serious about water last summer. She lives in Hudson Bend on Lake Travis, with a backyard view of the lake and a front-row seat to the effects of drought.
“I’ve always tried to conserve water as much as I could, and have used small rainwater barrels to supplement my vegetable garden for a long time,” says Montgomery. “But watching the lake drop inspired me to take it to the next level. My main motivation was environmental reasons.”
In addition to shade cloth, mulch and organic soil-building practices to help keep her garden as water-efficient as possible, Montgomery had a 5,000-gallon system installed that collects rainwater from the roof of her home. She currently has onions, tomatoes, squashes, sweet potatoes, lettuce, herbs, artichokes, strawberries, Brussels sprouts and grapevines all irrigated with rainwater. “I just recently am able to use the system; it was several months after installation until it actually rained—those big tanks just sat empty,” recalls Montgomery. “I hope I’ll never need to use tap water on my vegetables again.”
Rainwater-collection systems do have one pesky need: storage. Austin tends to experience heavy precipitation events spaced far apart, which makes tanks with large capacity a must for most large gardens. Montgomery’s rainwater tanks take up about as much space as a two-car garage, space that many urbanites don’t have.
Aquaponics is another water-conserving system gardeners can consider. A combination of two other production systems—hydroponics, where plants are raised in a soilless environment (usually water) and are completely dependent on the input of nutrients, and aquaculture, where fish are raised in a closed system that is vulnerable to excessive by-products from the fish—aquaponics uses the waste products from fish as a nutrient source for the growing plants, thus closing the loop. Food-producing aquaponic systems produce very little waste and require very little input, including water.
“Aquaponics are super-efficient systems that are applicable for both small- and large-scale production,” says Arturo Arredondo, who builds these and other water-conserving food systems for residential and commercial concerns throughout Central Texas.
At first glance, aquaponics might not seem like an appropriate variable in the food-water-growth equation since these food-growing systems replace soil with water as the growing medium. But the water is recirculated and used over and over again, often through a series of small plots stacked several feet high and connected by pipes filled with water.
“Aquaponics uses two percent of the water needed for inground food production,” says Arredondo. “That’s ninety-eight percent less water. Since there is no soil involved, there is less labor required. No weeding, fertilizer spreading, composting, irrigating and no fuel-powered tractors required for plowing or tilling. And because of the concentration of nutrients available to the plants at all times, planting densities are four to six times as dense as inground crops and production cycles are cut in half.”
Arredondo and members of the Texas TransFarmers Group (which Arredondo organizes) specialize in other creative permaculture techniques that dramatically increase water conservation.
“Wicking beds are simple structures based on a raised-bed garden that incorporate a reservoir underneath the bed to store water,” Arredondo says. “The garden is watered through an exposed pipe that wicks water upward through the soil to the roots.” This upside-down watering technique results in minimal water loss due to evaporation.
The Texas TransFarmers Group also employs a type of raised-garden approach called hugelkultur, which essentially relies on a large brush pile as a planting bed. As the brush in the pile breaks down over a five- to seven-year period, it provides a slow release of nutrients for the plants, and absorbs water. “It’s really a miniature forest,” explains Arredondo.
Of course, these techniques are hardly new. The aquaponic method is thought to have been used by Aztec farmers over 500 years ago, and compost-centered practices like hugelkultur were used during the early Roman empire. But when faced with the impossible challenges of drought, increased population and limited water resources, could the ancient ways provide new answers for Central Texas?
Standing just about anywhere at the five-acre Millberg Farm in Kyle, it’s hard to compare this Certified Organic vegetable farm to any other farm, ancient or present-day. There are no tractors or plowed rows nor any sign of irrigation devices. Random plastic jugs filled with water dot the wood-chip trenches and pathways that meander through thick patches of diverse and mostly edible vegetation. Beans, potatoes, okra, squashes, asparagus, basil, melons, radishes and other vegetables mingle with native grasses and herbaceous plants throughout the property. Despite the seeming agri-chaos, there’s a feeling that every square inch of the farm is absolutely intentional.
“For twenty-two years I have never pumped a drop of water from the aquifer,” says owner Tim Miller. “I started out running community gardens in Austin in the ’80s. Working [at] gardens at senior centers, I met mostly low-income people who were only one generation removed from the farm. I learned a lot from those people.”
Millberg Farm is funded largely by its 40-member community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, for which Miller delivers twice weekly. He has no employees, and almost every single piece of infrastructure and farm input is from reclaimed, free material. He’s not running on a shoestring; it’s a micro-weight fishing line.
“It would be easy to tap into the two-inch water line that runs along the street, or buy a couple of 25,000-gallon rain-storage tanks, so I won’t do it. Could someone on very low income afford it? Then I won’t either,” says Miller—choosing to prove that a profitable farming business can be started from, literally, nothing.
“I brought in my hundred-and-seventy-sixth load of free wood chips from local tree-trimming companies this year, ” Miller says as he looks through old notes. “As the wood chips age, I screen out the decomposed material to use in the beds. Without wood chips and Blackland clay, there’s no way I could do this without irrigation—especially in dry years. Wood chips are also great habitat for beetles which are a prime predator insect which lessens my cutworm problems.”
Instead of underground irrigation pipes and valves, Miller uses the natural grade of his land to make the most of every drop of rain that lands or flows onto the farm. Tomatoes are planted at mounded intersections in a grid of one-foot furrow dikes designed to hold water after rains without rotting plants.
Miller also uses terracing and trenches to control how the water flows and collects on his property. When he bought the land in the early 1990s, one of the first things he did was pile up sycamore leaves on the front part of the property, which grades slightly toward the back. After a heavy rain, he observed how the water flow deposited those leaves throughout the property.
“Those areas became my trenches since I knew rainwater would be flowing through anyway. I dug them to direct water to specific areas on the property. Those areas become my beds. Most plants are placed on mounds within those beds, so when it rains, the low spots between mounds fill with water, which the compost and clay absorbs and holds for long periods.”
Un-composted wood chips are used on the soil surface, which helps reduce the need for tilling to keep the soil surface loose. “Keeping the surface loose helps promote capillary action in my clay soils, which moves water up and down and is great for plants,” explains Miller.
Those hundreds of old milk and juice jugs lying about are used to hand water any high-need plants with rainwater collected from the roofs of the house, barn and other structures on the farm.
“Hybrid [plant] varieties generally need more water and fertilizer, so I use a lot of heirlooms,” says Miller. “I experiment with a wide selection of varieties—we have seventeen varieties of tomatoes alone. The Silvery Fir Tree tomato is exceptional. The Golden Pearl and Yellow Perfection tomatoes are good, too. I also use three-lobed bell peppers instead of four-lobed—they seem to do better in dry-land conditions.”
Miller doesn’t own a mower, a result of his perspective on weeds. “This foxtail grass growing in the potatoes is on purpose; I let those seed pretty much wherever they want. Painted buntings love the seeds, and they do absolutely no harm to my potatoes. I have some CSA members who eat the nut grass over there, so that’s a good weed, too,” points out Miller. “Too much mowing along the beds removes windbreaks, and makes the grasshoppers move to areas where they can do damage. I don’t have many problems with pest insects.”
Miller’s former clients at the senior center farmed and gardened during times that required resilience and resourcefulness for survival. He farms the same way because he wants to, and he’s proving that the future of sustainable farming in Central Texas is not gloom and doom. But that doesn’t mean it will be easy.
“It might be easy to just turn on the water now, but it might not be so true in the near future,” Miller says. “Let’s get some creativity going and talk about ways to deal with current and future challenges.”
Whether people engage in that conversation or not, Miller is well prepared for the future. Last fall, before the rains returned and after the worst summer on record, the farm had its best season in 22 years, and the waiting list to join the Millberg Farm's CSA program grew even longer.
For more information on water conservation and drought preparedness:
John Nielsen-Gammon’s blog, Climate Abyss: blog.chron.com/climateabyss
City of Austin Population:
Sustainable Urban Agriculture and Community Garden Program (SUACG): austintexas.gov/austingrows
Texas TransFarmers Group: meetup.com/CentralTexasAquaponics
City of Austin Policy on Alternative Compliance for Vegetable Growing [water variances]: austintexas.gov//sites/default/files/files/Water/Conservation/gardenpolicy%281%29.pdf