Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Town in Texas: This is How it Ends for Robert Lee

They are starting to think seriously about abandoning the west Texas town of Robert Lee because it is about to run out of water. Too strong? Okay, to be exact, some of Robert Lee’s 1,049 people have moved away, and more are thinking about leaving before the water runs out. Will that create a trend that gives us our first American town to be abandoned because of climate change? (I’m still betting on Las Vegas as the first city.) Will America’s first recognized climate refugees be Rick Perry’s Texans? We’ll report. You decide.

A half-century ago, Robert Lee did what most municipalities in the West did to make sure they would have a permanent water supply: they dammed the Colorado River and made a private lake. (That’s what Vegas did, with a dam called Hoover.) Robert Lee’s lake was the E.V. Spence Reservoir, which gave the town not only water but a tourist industry: marinas and boatyards and lake houses and all the ancillary businesses and revenue flows that derive from people playing on water. In a desert.

Too strong? Robert Lee’s annual rainfall average is 12 inches, which is two inches a year above the commonly used standard of ten inches for a true desert. Twelve inches puts it in the loose category (10-30 inches per year) of semi-arid steppe. In the past year it has received six inches of rain. It’s a desert now.

And the E.V. Spence Reservoir, that once covered 22 square miles, more than 20 times the area of the town it nourished, is now more than 99 per cent gone. It’s a fetid pond, now being overrun, in a cinematic post-apocalyptic touch, by herds of feral hogs. The town’s public water is a brown, smelly brine. The marina’s docks loom over bone-dry, crusted ground and the luxurious lake houses overlook, well, desert. And here’s another post-apocalyptic scene: the last green grass in town — which has for two years prohibited lawn-watering — is on the golf course, which uses reclaimed waste water to maintain the emerald green. more