Texas weather is characterized by extremes of drought, but none in the modern era have been as persistent or severe as the droughts of the 1930s and the 1950s.
The drought of 1930-36 affected much of the United States but was centered on the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles, where crop failures left 500,000 people homeless. As much as 75% of exposed topsoil was lost to massive dust storms. The storm of April 14, 1935, known as “Black Sunday,” lifted some 300,000 tons of topsoil into the air and turned day into night in towns like Amarillo, Dalhart, and Pampa. Reporters nicknamed the region “The Dust Bowl.”
To deal with the Dust Bowl drought, Texas relied on water conservation and reclamation districts (later called river authorities). These quasi-governmental agencies were created by the legislature under pioneering statutes, the first in the United States that placed the development and management of water resources for an entire river basin under a single public agency. The districts constructed reservoirs to capture floodwaters during rainy periods, and administered the lakes thus created for flood control and to provide water for municipalities, industry, and agriculture.
The effects of the Dust Bowl drought are on dramatic display in this undated photo from Dallam County in the far northwestern Panhandle. Located at the bulls-eye of the 1930s drought, Dallam County was described by a 1935 observer as “a vast desert, with miniature shifting dunes of sand.” Prints and Photographs Collection, 1972/115-J-776.
During the drought of 1950-57, soil conservation methods largely prevented a return of the dust storms, but in every other respect the disaster was the most severe drought in recorded history. The total rainfall was off by 40%, devastating agriculture and greatly affecting lakes and reservoirs. For example, Lake Dallas fell to an astounding 11% of capacity. Most of the state was under strict water rationing, and many cities had to truck in drinking water from Oklahoma. All but ten of Texas’s 254 counties were declared federal disaster areas.
From a public policy standpoint, the result was the Water Planning Act of 1957, which provided for the first statewide plan for the development, conservation, and use of Texas water. The legislation created the Texas Water Development Board to forecast water supply needs and administer a $200 million water development fund for construction of new reservoirs across Texas. The law authorized the Texas Board of Water Engineers (later the Texas Water Commission, now the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission) to create plans that would meet the needs of the forecast.
The first plan was delivered in 1961 and provided for the construction of 45 new major reservoirs. Issues confronted by the early planners included decisions about allocating water between residential, industrial, and agricultural uses; taking water from wetter parts of the state in order to meet the needs of dry regions; and coping with federal environmental regulations. Increased awareness of the environmental impact of reservoirs led to their falling from favor with many voters by the late 1960s; the result was increasing dependence on aquifers.
This 1954 photo shows Lake Whitney at just one-third of capacity. The lake was created by the completion just one year earlier of the Whitney Dam on the Brazos River, in a project to bring hydroelectric power and flood control to the area south of Fort Worth. During the drought of 2011, the lake fell again to extremely low levels, exposing ancient Native American artifacts that had been long hidden underwater. Texas Highway Department Historical Records, 2002/101-50.