John Ben Shepperd: Ninth Annual Fish Fry of the Fraternity of the White Heron

June 20, 1953

Ninth Annual Fish Fry of the Fraternity of the White Heron (Anahauc, Texas)

All of us are interested in our terrific water problem in Texas or we wouldn’t be here. I wish I had the time to talk to you about various phases of it—about the Deweyvilles and Laredos, the gyp water and the withering corn, the farms and cities right here along the Trinity that are crying for water while almost six million acre feet of it flows past on its way to the Gulf without their being able to use it. I’d like to talk about the 60 million acre feet that evaporate unused, the 62 million that runs down our 11 major river systems, and the mere 7 ½ million we capture and turn to a good purpose. But these things are water under the bridge and not in the reservoir; you know as well as I that we have a serious and complicated problem of conservation.

It is hard to get any real action on the matter. Interest in water is like interest in citizenship—as soon as we hold an election the public issues are forgotten, and a good rain has ruined almost as many water conservation programs as indifferent people.

I wish I had time to talk to everyone of you, and to get your ideas about several basic questions. Is it within the state’s obligation to provide its citizens with a drink of pure water and a clean bath? Is the city dweller more entitled to water than his country brethren? Is one entitled to a green lawn and the other an irrigated strip? Are Texas industries entitled to enough water to operate at a profit?

I think the answer is clear. With an average 30 inches of annual rainfall, Texas gets enough water to give every man, woman, child, farmer and industry a full share—unpolluted, unrationed, and inexpensive. But we do not have the means to catch it and hold it.

It is easy to look ahead to a better day in Texas when we will be purifying salt water in large quantities, recharging and replenishing underground supplies, making secondary recovery, turning the rivers off and on at will with dams and reservoirs, and pumping water through pipelines criss-crossing the state—or the day when we will know enough about our underground strata to transport water from one section to another without pipelines. But these things are all down the road. Our problem today is what to do about the Laredos, the falling water tables and the withering corn.

The number one urgent necessity today is clear-cut understanding among the various water authorities and agencies on all levels as to who is going to do what. There is too much bickering between the Federal and State government, between the water districts and the River Authorities and between the River Authorities and the Board of Water Engineers. Somebody in authority ought to call them together within the next 10 days, sit down, lock the door, and thrash it out. Too many cooks spoil the broth unless we understand clearly who is going to cut the potatoes, who will scrape the carrots and who will wash the dishes.

It is imperative that we formulate an iron-clad policy toward the Federal government. Our water and our problem are inseparable; we cannot send the problem to Washington and hope to keep control of our water at home. There are some things we cannot do without Federal help, but we must know where to draw the line, and draw it.

Laredo has shown us that the State of Texas is lacking agency with the power to act in water emergencies. It is hoped that the Board of Water Engineers, with its long-overdue reorganization authorized by the 53rd Legislature, will have the power to establish rules for emergency procedures. If it hasn’t, some state agency should be given that power.

The 53rd Legislature passed eight water bills, among which was a bill authorizing the appointment of a nine-man Water Resource Committee, charged with taking a complete inventory of all our water resources and promulgating a long-range water policy for the state. Unfortunately this committee has very limited funds, but its formation has crystallized our problem into one paramount and immediate need: a complete comprehensive, state-wide water survey. How can we ever cope with our dilemma until we see how much water we have and how much we need? The committee is allowed four years to recommend legislation. But our problem cannot wait four years. We must have the information now that a survey would give, and the only way to have it is to get it.

To begin with, the committee will need additional funds to pay its administrative expenses and to hire the necessary experts to evaluate information. We’ll have to get them. In Texas there are hundreds of endowed foundations, industrial research agencies, organizations and private citizens who want good water enough to help pay for finding it. There are ways of raising money besides taxation.

Second, the committee will help. Let every mayor and county judge form a water resources committee to work under the nine-man board on the local county level. There are instances in which cities have cooperated financially with the Board of Water Engineers and the Federal Government to make their own water surveys with gratifying results. It would be a real contribution if every city would merely find out the source of its underground water supply. The cities whose people know where their water comes from can be counted on the fingers of your hands.

Every city and county has some kind of Constitutional or statutory authority to take stock of its needs and deficiencies. Let each of them do everything within is statutory power to procure information. County Agents and Vocational Agriculture teachers could immediately survey terracing and materially assist in formulating a water conservation policy for every county in Texas.

Third, let all of our water conservation authorities, including water control and conservation districts, fresh water supply districts, flood control districts, drainage districts, navigation districts and others review their own data, summarize their files and report facts to the state committee.

Fourth, let every river authority re-evaluate its potentials and find out its ability to meet the farm, city, and industrial requirements in its watershed and report the amount of surplus or deficiency.

Fifth, let every State and Federal agency even remotely connected with water come to the aid of the Resource Committee immediately. Let the newly-created Pollution advisory [sic] Board find out how much water would be made available in pollution were brought under control. The Attorney General’s Office, for one, recognizing the importance of quick conservation measures, set up a Water Division January 1 to cope with water problems, and is ready to help with all the information and legal advice at its command.

Sixth, if the Resources Committee needs engineers, let industry provide them. Let some of the millions of dollars being spent by private enterprise for water research be put into an overall survey.

Four years is a long time. We can cut it in to a fraction if we pull together. But let’s leave the politics out of it. Let every water-worried Texan be a fact-finder, not a lobbyist. Politics, like oil, will not mix with water.

When we get the facts they ought to show us whether it is even possible to have a uniform policy that will be fair to everybody. Undoubtedly there are areas of the state that will never have a better water program than they have right now. They may never have irrigation or industry, and if they are not going to have it, they have a right to know it.

Our problem is too serious for divided efforts and too far advanced for further delay. It is my humble opinion that as soon as the work is done and practical long-range water policy outlined, we should ask the Governor for a special session of the Legislature to consider nothing but solving the water problem, and to stay in session until something is accomplished. It will not suffice to have this problem brought up in a crowded regular session, competing with twelve or fifteen hundred other bills.

It is easy to say, “Yes, let the Water Resources Committee make a survey.” But bear in mind that in 1929 the Board of Water Engineers was authorized to survey all the underground water resources in the state, but has never been given the funds or facilities to finish the job. Until this year it was working with the same size staff it had fifteen years ago. The fact that the Legislature has set up a vehicle does not necessarily mean that it will run.

The success of this venture depends on you and me. It is the greatest challenge for cooperative action that Texans have had in many years. Our problem cannot wait, and neither can we. Let’s 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.