Beset by Drought, a West Texas Farmer Loses His Cotton Crop and Fears a Hotter and Drier Future State Water Planners Aren’t Considering

Climate change is helping fuel the drought, but the state’s political leaders won’t take global warming into account in their water management. “Climate change has become politicized,” says Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon.

Richard Gaona walks through his dry, empty cotton field. Credit: Christian Roper
Richard Gaona walks through his dry, empty cotton field. Credit: Christian Roper

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Richard Gaona has lived in the small town of Roby, Texas, his entire life. Growing up helping his father on their cotton farm, it seemed only natural when Gaona decided to expand their operations after high school.

West Texas is notorious for its arid conditions. It is a vast place. It is a dry place. It is naturally prone to droughts and wildfires. Nevertheless, the Gaona family migrated from Mexico and settled into the community with hopes of a happy and warm future. 

It turned out that the future is a lot warmer and drier than they had anticipated.

Severe droughts have left many agricultural communities in Texas, the nation’s largest cotton producer, with water scarcity. Gaona, 64, is just one of the many farmers who have to deal with extreme conditions, which will make the 2022 cotton crop less than half of what was produced in 2021, according to the Texas State Farm Bureau. He has been unable to harvest any cotton this year. 

Richard Gaona stands over his 6,880 acres of land in Roby, Texas.  Credit: Autumn Jones
Richard Gaona stands over his 6,880 acres of land in Roby, Texas. Credit: Autumn Jones

According to a study published in October 2021 by Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon, global warming is exacerbating droughts and causing extreme temperatures in parts of Texas. But climate change, he said, has been politicized in the state, which is deeply supportive of the fossil fuel industry, and the Texas State Water Plan, conducted by the Texas Water Development Board, doesn’t take into account the likelihood of future declines in water availability due to the warming and drying climate. 

With little irrigation in Fisher County, Gaona, relies solely on rainwater for his crops and cattle. When there is no rain, crops can die, and cattle have to be sold. 

“If we don’t have rain we don’t make a crop,” Gaona said. “We don’t have any source of water.”

Every person living in Fisher County is affected by drought, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System, which serves as a federal aridity monitoring network. 

The entire county is parched. 

“It has hurt us over the years,” Gaona said. “Our area used to get 20 to 25 inches of rain a year. Now we’re in the 15 to 20 inches range. It’s dropped that much in the 40 years that I’ve been farming.”

“I’ve definitely seen droughts become much more common.”

Gaona shows the geographical changes to his farm due to drought while driving through his cotton fields. Credit: Christian Roper
Gaona shows the geographical changes to his farm due to drought while driving through his cotton fields. Credit: Christian Roper
“When The Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin plays on the radio as Gaona travels down his dry land. The song lyrics are a striking and ironic contrast to Gaona’s reality. Credit: Christian Roper
Gaona has adapted to skip row planting of cotton in order to save water. Credit: Autumn Jones

The Climate, and Politics, Are Changing 

Water availability in the era of global warming and extreme droughts has become a pressing issue in Texas and around the globe. Nielsen-Gammon is one of the many researchers working to educate water planners and farmers on how to meet demands for moisture in the midst of a changing climate and population growth. 

He co-authored a study in 2020 about what stakeholders need to know about unprecedented drought risks in Texas as the planet continues warming.

“We wrote the paper both to lay out what we know scientifically about droughts and to identify some knowledge gaps so that better research can be done,” Nielsen-Gammon said. 

The study notes that “the uncertainty in future water availability is substantial. Texas, like a number of other regions in the world, is currently water stressed.” 

An immature cotton boll that stopped growing. Credit: Christian Roper

Increasing temperatures, extreme weather and decreasing water availability will only add to current Texas water challenges, it adds.

The Texas State Water Plan, run by the Texas Water Development Board, oversees 16 regional water plans across the state. The state plan, updated every five years, provides current scientific data related to water resources in the state. It serves as a guide for state water policy. 

The plan doesn’t, however, take into account the possible decline of water availability in Texas due to climate change. 

“The plan states that forecasts of future changes in water resources due to climate change are not used due to a lack of reliable, usable estimates of such changes,” Nielsen-Gammon’s study says.

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Water planners can opt to have supplemental water supplies in the event there is a severe drought, “yet no tools are provided to assist in such planning, and the political hurdle of explicitly addressing climate change presents its own challenge,” the study states. 

The issue of climate change is not easy to tackle in Texas, and Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is on record as opposing climate change legislation and protecting the oil and gas industry.

“Climate change has become politicized,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “So it is difficult at the leadership level to acknowledge climate change is a problem that needs to be taken seriously in long-range water planning.”

The term “climate change” isn’t used in any of Texas’ official documents, leaving state water planners and scientists to dance around the issue.

Some cities in Texas, such as Austin, do extensive planning for their water supply. 

“They actually go well beyond what’s required at the state level,” Nielsen-Gammon said. 

The city’s latest water plan, Water Forward, predicts 100 years into the future and takes into account climate change in the modeling.

“Most places in Texas don’t do that,” Nielsen-Gammon added.

Gaona shows me how he uses skip rows to produce better cotton despite the drought in November 2021. Credit: Christian Roper

Sustainable Water Models

Dr. Venkatesh Uddameri, a professor at Texas Tech University and the director of the college’s Water Resources Center, studies water resources with a specific focus on climate impacts. 

His passion for water planning began during his childhood in India. 

“I grew up in a part of India that is semi-arid, very much like parts of Texas,” Uddameri said. 

“This was around the time when people were starting to put electric wells with pumps for augmenting their water supplies,” he said. “We used to have a dug well in our house, it was a shallow well that held water. We would use it for ground watering and as supplemental water use.”

“Then our neighbors went and dug a deeper well and put an electric pump in it, and essentially that sucked all of the water, and our well went dry. Everyone told my dad that now, he needed to grow a deeper well than our neighbor,” Uddameri said with a laugh. 

The same issue of over pumping wells is happening in similarly arid parts of Texas. For instance, the town of Roby receives its water primarily from wells in the city of Sweetwater.

Uddameri stands covered in mist at Iguaçu falls in Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil. The waterfall separates Brazil and Argentina. Photo Courtesy of Venkatesh Uddameri

As a water resources expert, Uddameri recognizes the faults in Texas’s approach to water planning.

“The state has decided to use the worst drought on record for planning,” he said, in reference to the state water plan using 2011, the driest year ever recorded in Texas, as the model for a worst-case scenario.

“There is no explicit mention of climate change in water planning,” he said. “They do account for the fact that there have been recent droughts, and droughts of the past, although climate models suggest there are going to be even worse droughts in the future.”

Uddameri believes the most practical approach to droughts and water availability in Texas is to focus on solutions. He works on sustainable water models at the water resources center. 

“The state water plan basically says that there wasn’t enough water in West Texas, so agriculture is going to go down,” Uddameri said. “That’s a very tough pill to swallow, being in West Texas.”

Uddameri works with farmers like Gaona across the country to help them understand what times of the year are best for planting and harvesting in order to use more rainwater. 

Fisher county once housed 12 cotton gins. A decrease in cotton production has left it with two. Credit: Autumn Jones

Environmental Education

In Roby, Gaona believes that more education is needed in urban Texas areas about agriculture and the environment. While urban areas like Austin have more resources and funding to plan ahead, farmers in places like Roby watch their farms dry out right before their eyes.

“We don’t have access to city water,” Gaona said. “If I have a pasture that relies on tanks that hold rainfall for the cattle, and those go dry, I have to get rid of the cattle because of that.”

This year Gaona sold 45 percent of his cattle, unable to feed them all.

Gaona said he feels a disconnect between rural and urban Texans, even in his personal life. Subdivisions spring up on land where orchards used to be, consuming water that might otherwise go to crops. 

“I’m not saying they aren’t beautiful places to live, but the thing is, you’re limiting the commodities that can be produced,” he said. “People in the city don’t realize they are taking away water that could be used to grow food.”

Gaona with his wife Judy. Credit: Christian Roper

Gaona and his wife will remain in Roby no matter the climate conditions. “I don’t see us going anywhere,” Gaona said.

He does worry about the future of agriculture in his hometown.

“Kids don’t really want anything to do with farms,” he said. “Generations of farmers are getting more and more removed from their farms. Plus you have to have water to keep them going.”

He recalled a moment when his father once asked his brother’s son and daughter if they knew where eggs came from. “Do you know what they answered? Krogers,” he said, referring to a leading grocery store chain.  

The Roby, Texas mural in historic downtown. Cotton farming has been synonymous with the area for generations. Credit: Autumn Jones
The Roby, Texas mural in historic downtown. Cotton farming has been synonymous with the area for generations. Credit: Autumn Jones

While uncertainty remains about the future of agriculture in the area, the mayor and other town leaders said that Roby will not become a ghost town. 

“People know how to survive here in small towns,” said Eli Sepeda, who’s been mayor of Roby for the last 12 years.


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“The drought is bad, and we would really love to see the creeks and lakes filled, the pastures green and the cattle being fed instead of people having to sell them,” he said. “It is what it is, but I am sure we are going to get through this one and the next one also.”

Gaona said having faith in the midst of hard times is what keeps him working on the farm.

“You really have to believe in yourself, knowing that you’re doing your best,” he said. “One thing my dad taught me was to take care of this land. To leave it in a better shape than when you got it, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”