The Drought of Record - 1950-1956
Mervin Walker, 80 years old and mayor of Weir since 1987, was a young farmer during the drought of the 1950s. He has vivid memories of that time of hardship. Like most of the farmers in the area, Mr. Walker was growing corn and cotton. Williamson County was known for producing good cotton crops, especially around Taylor. He remembers that the early ‘50s were a little dry, but the farmers were still getting by. Then came 1956, the summer that the rains came to a dead stop.
“That was a terrible year,” he recalls. “Just in the bottom of the terrace channels there was a little bit of cotton. Little ole cotton wasn’t but about a foot high. We didn’t even have machines in 1956. There was a colored family in Weir; they had quite a few kids. They came over and handpicked the cotton. They would come over and take their cotton sacks and it took them a week or two. We only got one bale from those fifty acres. I felt so sorry for them, so I gave them half of what we got.”
According to Mr. Walker, the corn crop that year was even worse than the cotton. “The corn got up about 3 foot high but there wasn’t any corn on it. It was a complete failure. The local dairy up north of Jonah green-chopped it and paid $4 an acre for the stalks to try and feed their cows. That kind of helped the farmers out. We got rid of all our cows in 1956.” Many farmers just gave up during the seven hard years, leaving their parched fields and searching in town for work to support their families.
Texas’ “drought of record” began in 1950, but precipitation data from Austin show that the rainfall during the first four years was only five to nine inches short of the average 33 inches. Then in 1954 it rained a mere 11.4 inches at Camp Mabry, and it stayed dry for three years. By 1956 wells began to dry up, and rivers ceased to flow. Comal Springs in New Braunfels stopped flowing for the first time in history.
The Williamson County Sun reported on an unusual experience of a Jonah resident, Mrs. W. H. Percy, in the summer of 1956. The San Gabriel River had been dry for months behind her property, and then her well went dry also. Hauling water and dumping it into the well was unsuccessful, as the water just escaped into the ground. She was having a deeper well drilled, but at 640 feet the drillers struck oil instead of water. “It is rather disappointing – to spend all that money for a water well and then get oil instead.” Oil may cost more money than water, but it has no value when one is thirsty.
Farmers in rural Williamson County could not irrigate their crops and were suffering for lack of rain, but meanwhile the townspeople of Georgetown had plenty of water. In July of 1953 city manager Lee Black told the Sun that Georgetown’s wells into the Edwards Aquifer could provide up to 5.4 million gallons a day, and that the city was using less than 25% of that capacity. Lake Georgetown did not yet exist. Don Scarbrough, editor of the Williamson County Sun, in his weekly editorial admonished the city fathers, “We’ve got a million or so extra gallons of water lying around every day, so why not use a small portion of it to keep the little city park on 12th Street looking green and pretty. One of the most attractive things about Georgetown is the verdant lawns and lovely flowers and shrubs all over town, except on the property owned by the city.”
In the 50s, Georgetown was by far Williamson County’s largest user of water from the Edwards Aquifer. It was also the most urbanized area and one of the few in which “verdant lawns” had become commonplace. Most of the county was still rural and the more usual landscape scheme was broom-swept dirt or native grasses which thrived or perished according to the weather. Actually Georgetown’s 5000 citizens were already using about 240 gallons per person per day, which was more than the average per capita Georgetown water consumption today. (Of course, the population of Georgetown has grown dramatically, so now a hot summer day can see a total water demand of 27 million gallons, a demand for which the wells alone would be completely inadequate.)
The following year, 1954, when Georgetown received only 8.64 inches of rain the entire year, the town’s wells were still producing plenty of water. The top headlines in the Sun that August concerned the advent of dial telephone service and the distribution of telephone directories to all subscribers. There was far more concern in town about the polio epidemic than there was about drought.
It was not until 1956 that the drought began affecting the citizens of Georgetown. That summer the city was pumping almost all its water from two new wells that had been drilled in 1952. The wells had been steady producers during the drought, but in July 1956 both wells suddenly dropped 9 feet within a matter of days. This unexpected event prompted mandatory one day a week watering restrictions, with violators fined $100 per day. A groundwater hydrologist was consulted to study the water problem. Don Scarbrough changed his tune and commented on the need for alternative sources of water, “maybe additional wells, perhaps deeper ones, or drawing water from Buchanan or Lake Travis and running water down to Williamson County in the dry San Gabriel river bottom, buying water from the Austin water district, building a dam on the river, etc. …Certainly we don’t want to just sit here without doing anything constructive until the water runs out.”
The water crisis in 1956, as well as the devastating floods that ended the drought in 1957, ultimately led to the construction in the late 1970s of Lakes Georgetown and Granger on the San Gabriel River, providing both water supply and flood control for Williamson County. This secure water supply allowed the population of Williamson County to increase from 38,000 in the 1950s to over 400,000 today. However, the Texas State Data Center projects that the county’s population will likely grow to over 1.3 million by 2040. For every one person who was using the county’s water in the 1950s, there will be 34 lining up to drink in 2040. Every one of them wants unlimited supplies of clean water available at the tap 24/7, drought or no drought. Our lakes may not be deep enough for that many straws.