Welcome to austinagrodolce … My family and I garden with more intention and enthusiasm than allocated budget or overall design plan. It shows. Wildlife populations don't seem to notice our lack of cohesive design, they just like the native plants here. It seems by growing local we've thrown out a welcome mat. Occasionally, we're surprised at who (and what) shows up.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

How Dry I Am, or What Would Jesus Drink?

In an article in the Austin American Statesman today, Asher Price is reporting on the very real threat that our sweet local CSA venture, Tecolote Farms, might be forced off their property and run out of their family's organic produce business due to their well drying up.

Now you could take a jaundiced view here and say something about how all farming is a risky venture, the amounts of rainfall and the varied climatic situations are always threatening agriculture, etc. but that isn't the whole story.

Sure, less rainfall is partly to blame for the Farm's well going dry, but the larger culprit is a shocking lack of water use regulatory policy in Texas. We may tout "Texas - It's like a whole other country", but out in east Travis county, we are more like "Texas - Whoever has the biggest pump wins.".

At the moment, the big water draws in East Travis County belong to a commercial provider - and to the county itself, taking water to irrigate playing fields for the East Metropolitan Park, which will eventually encompass, according to a recent bond program approved: "... recreational facilities...include: two multi-use ball fields, three youth baseball fields, one adult baseball field, two soccer fields, one covered basketball court, playscapes, concessions facilities, restrooms, hiking trails, and three ponds that will support catch-n-release fishing programs. The ball fields and soccer fields will be ready for play this fall after the turf has time to establish itself. The master plan for the park resulted from an extensive public outreach effort that elicited ideas about park design and layout from throughout Travis County.

The 2005 Bond program allows for the completion of the park’s master plan and will include additional baseball fields, soccer fields, concessions stands and restrooms, a meeting facility, a tennis court, shuffle board courts, an 18 hole disc golf course and additional trails."

I am a native born resident of Austin. My husband and I came back here in the midst of the economic slump of the 80s and we raised our two children here. I am not reflexively against growth and I am a huge fan of the public parks in our area. BUT....

The idea that we can allow unregulated subdivisions to explode around us, to have the county itself as well as other commercial pumping outfits making a profit off the groundwater at the expense of other pre-existing local businesses, especially local organic farms, just doesn't make any sense to me.

The Pitres are trying to find a way to buy some of the water that is actively being sucked away out from under their own land, but hoping to do so at an agricultural rate. So far, they are out of luck. Katie Pitre remarked she was told when checking with a local water supplier "most farmers rely on Jesus.".

This is ironic considering Tecolotes Farm's neighbor, Manville Water Supply Corporation, says on their website they began as a group of farmers after a prolonged draught in 1967, originally calling themselves the "Farmers Home Administration Water System.". In a state where agriculture used to reign supreme, in a county where farmers were organizing as recently in the late 60's to preserve their water supplies, how could we have allowed ourselves to neglect to regulate water use?

In a paper prepared for the Peak Oil Preparation group, Nancy Dennis took a look at whether or not Austin already has more people than can be fed with food grown locally. In her research about how many acres of irrigated land there are in our county, Dennis discovered a huge shift away from agricultural to other uses for land county wide. Looking at the county's figures as reported in "Texas Environmental [County] Profiles", and figures reported to the federal authorities, there are 1300 acres dedicated to "irrigated croplands" and 38,000 "cultivated" acres of county wide. Looking at all the 2020 projections for use, the only number that goes down is that for irrigated water use by sector (from 1224 in 2000 to 622 in 2020[acre feet]).

So who might be of assistance? LCRA? They are the ones selling water rights in the area, but according to their new, supposedly more "green" GM, Tom Mason, help won't be coming any time soon from the LCRA, either.

Quoted in an article in January ("Full Stream Ahead"), Mason states LCRA won’t take the initiative on sustainability unless a higher authority says it must. “That’s for the state to decide,” he said. “The state water code sets priorities of uses, how you can use the water, under what circumstances you get a permit. The Legislature tends to lag behind people’s needs, and they respond to constituents’ concerns. That’s where I think we’ll see changes in water conservation. It needs to be done on a statewide basis. Groundwater and surface water are separated by law, but in reality, they are connected. There’s a finite amount of water around. When water gets so expensive, if you can’t construct a reservoir—many water planners will tell you there’s very few reservoir sites left in the state of Texas, for all sorts of reasons. That leaves conservation, conjunctive use of groundwater and surface water, desalination, which right now is very expensive because of energy costs, and changing human behavior. At some point, as it has in the past, the Legislature is going to change laws and direct us in a certain way because it is inevitable we need to manage a finite resource in a slightly different way.”Apparently decisions have already been made that will affect all of us whether or not we care about what we eat or where it comes from. These land use policies are being underwritten by a lack of actual decision making with regards to water use. Travis County will gradually, inexorably move from a county with ample groundwater to support irrigated land capable of generating food crops, to our current worsening status of a county whose policies support only "other" uses, providing for increased subdivisions, manufacturing, mining, livestock, and, oh right, parks.

Travis County Commissioner Ron Davis is quoted in the newspaper article as saying, ""We all benefit from that park," "Listen, before this park came about, the folks in that part of the county, they either had to go to Bastrop or all the way into Austin to entertain their families with park events." Which "folks in that part of the county" are we talking about here? Those "folks", would they be the same ones whose family farm, operating since 1993, has just run out of water?

I guess, sure, with no water meaning no work to be done, there would be loads more time for the Pitres to spend playing in the park with their children. As long as they don't plan to try and shower or get a drink of water at their house, afterward.

Bottom line is this, according to Ron Davis. Parks or food. He is apparently not willing to see any way to provide for both. Fresh, locally grown vegetables or more land supporting a monoculture of grass for people to play and sit on. Is that a tough choice for anybody else? Davis is not a bad guy in my book, don't get me wrong. He has stood up for the folks in Eastern Travis County for years, when other folks were content letting them live in the midst of unregulated landfills. So sure, get your folks a park, Mr. Davis. But keep an eye on how big that park will be, how much water it will take to keep those fields green, and watch out for your farmers, too.

As for Katie and David Pitre relying on Jesus for water to grow and clean their organic produce in preparation for sale locally, I guess I see where that comment is coming from. After all, according to the Bible, at the very beginning of our combined history on earth - that is, the combined history of humankind and everything else living on this planet, "Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.". I don't read anything in there about 18 hole disc golf courses or shuffle ball courts.

So yeah, maybe Jesus is the last recourse for anybody trying to grow food these days. It sure as shoot isn't going to be somebody like, say, County Commissioners or the LCRA who will give them any help.

Why should YOU care?

There is an ancient saying, "Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn't mean politics won't take an interest in you." ( Pericles, 430 B.C.).

Just because you might not have a CSA share that is threatened by water use in eastern Travis County doesn't mean you won't be impacted by the "if we have water we gotta sell it" policies we currently suffer under. If you think food prices are high now, consider how much higher they will rise when oil prices stay up and all the food you can buy to eat - even at a farmer's market - has to come to you from property outside the county. You can at least make a choice about driving (or not) to play at the park.

Think about living in the Houston Metro area where the concept of a farm is something you'll only see on bulletin boards or hear about in grade school classrooms as they talk about Texas History.

Food or parks? I say we need both/and, not either/or. You with me on that?

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