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The BBC's Philippa Thomas
"The Texas drought threatens farmers' livelihoods and water supplies"
 real 56k

Tuesday, 19 September, 2000, 20:27 GMT 21:27 UK
Texas in desperate drought
Cotton plants whither from lack of rain
Farmers are losing billions of dollars due to the drought
By Philippa Thomas in Texas

Many farms in Texas have gone 80 days without rain - the longest period of drought the state has ever experienced.

Thousands of acres of crops are wasted, cattle ranches are going without water, and lakes have dried up.

The harsh conditions have brought back memories of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, when thousands of farmers fled from the south.

Withered crops

Farmers in east Texas grow cotton, corn and wheat, but this year, they fields will yield far less than expected.

Dusty cattle eating hay
Cattle are already eating hay usually stored for winter
Farmer Terrell Hamann said: "The cotton should be waist high, but it's a foot tall. It tried to do all it could do to further itself, but it just ran out of moisture."

Weeks of drought and searing heat have hit this community hard.

"Normally by 1 September, we've already planted some spring wheat or oats for grazing or for fall harvest. We haven't planted anything because the ground is so dry," said another farmer, James Prinz.

Dust Bowl memories

The cattle are already eating hay that should be stored for winter. For some, the bare fields are bringing back memories of the Dust Bowl.

A man hangs a wet blanket over a doorway during the dustbowl
During the Dust Bowl, people used wet blankets to keep the dust out of their homes
"That was terrible. It was in the 1930s, and there were no crops," said Thekla Hamann.

"We had towels that we wettened and put on the window sill to keep out the dust. (Farmers) all left their farms because they had no way of feeding their families," she said.

Farming technology today is far advanced, but still at the mercy of the seasons. This is the fourth summer of drought in the last five years.

Susan Combs, the agriculture commissioner for the state of Texas, said: "'96, '98, '99. We already lost about $600m this year, another $400m to go. That's $5.5bn in straight cash. If you look at the local economic impact for those guys, triple it. You're talking $15 bn."

Reservoirs run dry

Bone-dry reservoirs are part of the local impact. Lake Travis should be supplying water for much of the city of Austin.

A canoe sits on the dry lakebed of Lake Travis
Lake Travis is dry, threatening a water supply for the city of Austin
But where there should be water in the reservoir, there are only weeds that have grown in the dry lake-bed since spring.

Dusty canoes sit landlocked. Docks stretch over what looks like a field of rocks and head-high weeds.

Even with winter rains, the situation could get worse, because the city is expanding rapidly.

"Austin's growing faster than we've ever seen a Texas city grow before. I think it's about 100 people a day are moving in, and with that, comes demands on our drinking water, which comes from Lake Travis," said Dori Thornhill, who lives in the area.

Lake Travis is an example of the wild swings of nature.

Three years ago the area was flooded. The water levels in the lake rose to a record high. It is dusty and dry now.

For everyone who lives here, it's a critical situation, and for some, it's verging on desperate.

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30 Aug 00 | Americas
Texas fears return of dust bowl
21 Aug 00 | Letter From America
Mother Nature's wild fires
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