John Ben Shepperd: Address to the Texas Water Conservation Association

October 13, 1953

Address to the Texas Water Conservation Association (Baker Hotel, Dallas, Texas)

When a man makes a speech he hopes for a sympathetic audience. But in this case I came prepared to give sympathy, not get it. I can sympathize with you on a double count: in the first place, I’m vitally concerned about our water problem in Texas; and second, you water conservationists are the forgotten men of the day, and I know just how you feel. Since the rain began to fall in Texas, even though it wasn’t enough, the public is forgetting you the way it is forgetting the tidelands. But, we still don’t have a clear title to our coastal lands, and we still don’t have any water. As many water conservation programs have been spoiled by a little rain as by public indifference.

The problem is so complex and so immediate that it’s hard to keep the main issues clear. We ought not to get so lost in the needs of our particular area or watershed that we forget some of the over-all urgencies that we have in common.

The state lacks an agency with the power to act in water emergencies. If the Board of Water Engineers, under its recent reorganization, doesn’t have the power to formulate rules for emergency procedures, some agency should be given that power.

Among the various water agencies, river authorities, districts and boards we’ve got have a clear-cut understanding as to who is going to do what. In some areas of action there are overlapping functions and conflict; in others there is a no man’s land where nobody feels any responsibility. Exact functions and responsibilities among these authorities have got to be delineated without rivalry, jealousy, or misunderstanding.

We’ve got to have a clear-cut policy toward the Federal government. There are some things we can’t do without Federal help, but we must know where to draw the line, and draw it. On the other hand, we’ve got to let the Federal government know exactly how much expect it to do.

There was a lot of sarcasm recently about the supposed contradiction between our plea for federal help in the drouth emergency and our states’ rights attitude on the tidelands. This is a ridiculous comparison. It’s like saying that if you expect your doctor to help you when you’re dying, you’re not supposed to stop him from stealing the deed to your farm.

To get something done about water, we’ve got to realize that our trouble is not just with nature, but with people. The kind of drouth we have is not just a question of too little rainfall, but the old problem of the spendthrift. It’s not what you get that counts, but what you save, and we’re not saving. Getting a water policy is mainly a question of changing the one we now have—a policy of “easy come, easy go.” There aren’t enough water-worried Texans willing to exchange a checking account for a savings account. We have money banks, blood banks, and eye banks, but no water banks.

We must also realize that we can’t get a uniform water policy until we find out exactly how much water we have, and how much we need. We can’t expect a law until we know what we expect it to say. We can’t hope to have a law that commands this or that do be done, until we use the laws that allow things to be done. Every city, county, river authority and water district ought to use what powers it has to determine its exact resources and deficiencies, and channel specific information from the city water departments right up through the various levels to the State Water Resource Committee, so that exact data can be handed to the Legislature with recommendations for action.

We have the law we need to do something constructive. It’s in the book. It is now a question of cooperative action on every level of government and among all water association and authorities. We need a pyramid of fact-finding starting on the local level and ending in a pin-point of information on which we can act. A water policy for Texas will have to start from the bottom up, not the top down.

But we’ll have to leave politics out of it. Politics, like oil, will not mix with water. We’ve got to be fact-finders, not lobbyists. If each of us throws himself into the fight only for his locality, his group, his river, his watershed, we might as well make up our minds to live on a desert.

If we really want to work together, as one great state, to solve the biggest problem facing our state today, we can do it—we can get Texas back to the point where, when we speak of dry counties, we won’t be talking about water.

Please note: The views expressed in these speeches were those of John Ben Shepperd, and do not necessarily represent the views of the John Ben Shepperd Public Leadership Institute or the University of Texas Permian Basin.