Dry Beds: Big Bend's Changing Climates
by Kate Keenan
Photos by Tony Drewry
Graphs by Jenny Schooler
Darren Wallis, Photo by Tony Drewry
I am in an adobe home created from ruins and built by the boatmen of a day and age perhaps now past. Family heirlooms and sentimental trinkets abound alongside baskets of fruit, textiles, and eclectic decor. The gracious and loquacious host, Darren Wallis, has ushered me in with a bird call remniscent of those used while playing spy games as a kid. “I’m over here, ready for the secret mission. Rally on the front porch!” I come prepared with a couple Lonestars in an upcycled thermal bag with a reusable ice pack. Wallis comments on it, saying he also appreciates reusing items.
Throughout our conversation, Wallis reminds me of the significance of this home, telling me a clipped version of former owner Ken Barnes’ life. His admiration for the man, as well as his pinpointed knowledge of Barnes’ biography, reflects Wallis’ prolific storytelling about Big Bend, whether in the form of historical recantation or of local legends, centering on contemporary Terlinguan characters. The Legend of Wallis is of its own. He is the town historian, a Faulknerian persona poised to regale patient listeners with his infinite knowledge. Once, Wallis professed to me of a photographic memory, though he described it more as an auditory gift. Wallis insists he is not a reader, though he can give you the digest of any referenced book, then recommend others to supplement the read. According to Wallis, his mother insisted he master reading at an early age, despite his Dyslexia, leaving him with a distaste for the activity if not outright disdain for traditional learning.
Wallis often references his admiration for those who are autodidactic and excited to share their self-gained knowledge. Perhaps this is why Wallis is so willing to receive me and take time to impart his knowledge on my goal subject for this article — the water in Big Bend. True to Wallis’ style, I am currently forking away from the subject of water to instead focus on someone I admire, Wallis himself.
Though water is a broad subject, Wallis eagerly agreed to give me his thoughts. By all intents and purposes he is our town historian, often referred to as an encyclopedia. Indeed, there is no subject I have broached with him with which he cannot engage. When I asked Wallis if he values his community through storytelling, without hesitation he cried, “Of course!” Wallis’ discourse is oral storytelling, a longtime Big Bend area tradition. Though Wallis claims he is a ne’er-do-well who disappointed his well-meaning parents, his role and position promotes him unquestionably to one of this community’s pillars, who will assuredly live on in history, if even in this little magazine.
As we sit, Wallis encants the entire history of the Rio Grande south of Elephant Bluff Dam, New Mexico dating back 12,000 years, concisely told in less than an hour and a half with nary but a nod or occasional “mhm” from me. I frantically scribble notes, sometimes backtracking him to make sure I understand the entire complicated history — from geographic and archeological proof of a slow climate trend towards desertification, to the European discovery in the 1550s of Presidio’s rich agricultural indigenous society, to the building of two significant Rio Grande dams in 1916, to a 1944 treaty giving Mexico what was then considered U.S. water, to NAFTA, to a disastrous amended water treaty in 2020 — all resulting in our current Big Bend dry beds. His story contains historical figures, indigenous people, conquistadors, drug runners, rebellions, war, politics, and eerily accurate memories of rainfall amounts each year over his over thirty years here. By the end of our first session, I feel fully schooled. He winds down his story by having me transcribe a vintage Girl Scout rain dance song (“A Woonie Koonie”), likely derived from an old Arapaho chant, hoping I will rally my own Girl Scout troop to end at a community call for rain.
According to Wallis, over 12,000 years ago, this area’s climate began a process of desertification due to higher temperatures and lower water content. As the water receded from a once heavily forested, wet region, living organisms from isolated places within the now Chihuahuan Desert adapted to the new environment and diversified, much like on islands. Hence the perching feet of roadrunners, who no longer have use for the safety of tree-sitting. Due to this change, the Chihuahuan Desert is considered the most diverse desert in the Western Hemisphere.
Man’s impact on the region’s water, however, is undeniable. Politics, especially, influenced directly by the water scarcity, have affected this region’s access to river water. In 1916, the Elephant Butte Reservoir in New Mexico, about 130 miles upriver from El Paso and Juarez, was completed. This was done with the blessing of Texas, who figured the area downriver from El Paso was not to arable. Meanwhile, Mexico built a large reservoir of its own, La Boquilla, bordering New Mexico and the Mexican state of Chihuahua, further blocking water from the Rio Grande as it made its way down to the Big Bend region. In 1944, a water treaty between the U.S. and Mexico was struck, both countries promising to share water on a five-year cycle.
Inevitably, in 2020 widespread drought depriving both the United States and Mexico of water needed to serve a high population and the Mexican mega-agricultural industry spurred by NAFTA in 1994, resulted in disputes between our two countries.
Unable to pay the five-year quota of water to the U.S., Mexico found itself in a domestic and international mess. With pressure from United States Secretary of State Pompeo via President Trump and prompted by Governor Abbott of Texas, Mexico’s President Obrador felt extreme pressure to release water owed or otherwise face unknown international consequences with Mexico’s main trading partner, the United States. In response, Obrador declared Mexico’s intentions to honor the debt, triggering outraged Chihuahuan farmers to seize la Boquilla Reservoir. After employing military action against protestors, leaving one young female activist dead, Obrador agreed to release waters from Mexico’s already depleted Falcon and Amistad Reservoirs, far further down the river near Del Rio. Without the flow of allocated water from the Boquilla Reservoir and with further stoppage from New Mexico’s Elephant Butte Reservoir, our region continues to suffer a lack of water flow, though some Chihuahuan farmers have been assuaged. Still, the culprit remains drought, not just in Texas and Mexico, but across the West.
As local river guide Sandi Turvan says, “No river means no river trips.” For any out here, the river is their haven, a place to escape into nature. Turvan calls it her “happy place”. Along with these droughts come hungry animal-life, eating plants they otherwise would have overlooked, later affecting the natural spread of plant life in the region. Sandi’s livelihood does not depend on the river, but many boatman and tourism services do. Here in the mountainous desert, however, it’s possible to pivot from river guiding to trail guiding. Still, may opt to move to other places upriver for a living. Sandi reminds me that some years there are floods not seen in decades and other years droughts not seen in decades.
Below is information gathered by Jenny Schooler of Sustainable Terlingua:
Average Yearly rainfall in inches: 9.74
Weather Extremes: Wet Years
1941-1942: Exceptionally wet
1965: Rainstorm. Sanderson, Terrell County. Torrential rains of up to eight inches in two hours near Sanderson caused a major flash flood that swept through the town
1986- 1987: Exceptionally wet
2014-2015: wettest year in Texas
Total rainfall for 20 months 24.04
Average rainfall per month: 1.20
Heavy rainfall events recorded in Terlingua > 1.4 inch per day (2008-2021)
Storm drainage 60 minute, 100 year return
A measure of all available precipitation data that estimates the maximum rainfall intensity of a 100 year storm.
Weather Extremes: Dry Years
1917: Driest year in Texas
1933-1935: The Dust Bowl
1952-1956: 5-year drought
2010-2011: Warmest summer on record
Total rainfall for 20 months : 3.45 inches
Average rainfall per month: 0.1725
Longest streak of no recorded precipitation: 7 months
2010 and 2011 Monthly rainfall totals recorded in Terlingua in inches
Though the lack of water is concerning, especially to those who depend on a livelihood as a river guide, household use water and Terlingua/Study Butte aquifer water is predicted to be less of a concern. In a statement released in the Terlingua Moon June 28, 2022, the Study Butte Water Supply Company stated, “At the present rate of usage, if we get not one more drop of rain, we have known supplies to last for approximately 6 years and possibly much longer.”
We can wax and wane about the dry riverbeds, lack of water, politics, economy, and so much more, but what it comes down to is community and interdependence. That’s the subject Darren Wallis keeps coming back to. The river can dry up all it wants, but his mourning is over the drying-up of weekly get-togethers, camaraderie, and person-to-person engagement he feels has been robbed from this community by a change in cultural climate. Summer temperatures without cooling water respite may run many off, but such also brings those of us together who withstand the oppressive heat or come home seasonally. The overarching theme in my interviews and conversations with locals is almost always this — adaption, sustainability, perseverance, loyalty, and an intimacy between community members spanning generations. Without one element, Terlingua does not exist. Perhaps the whole of Big Bend does not. If the only viable conduit of our history exists through community interaction, then the river of that information dies with a drought of people, a lack of community. There is no explicit treaty here to share that flow of information. The revolution to retrieve and retain it rests with its people, those people who adapt and remain. Those people who squeeze water from a rock and make lemonade, those people like Wallis.
July 4th saw our annual parade caught in a deluge, something that has become part of the tradition here. Yes, it almost always rains on our parade. Many of us gathered at the Porch to celebrate the welcome water (despite the hail), and cheers to the summer monsoons. On top of this, a few weeks ago, I was hanging with my buddies on the Porch, and a sheet of rain came upon us. We all stood at the edge of the patio, allowing the rain to soak us as we whooped and hurrayed together in unison, as if we were watching an epic sports game. This, my readers, is community. When things like rain can bring you together in joy and gratitude, you know you’re doing something right.
Philip Lowe, Willow Keenan, Kate Keenan, Mandy Jorgenson
Photo by Tony Drewry
I asked Wallis, “Is it ethical to live here?” after discussing the lack of resources and water. His answer was in sum — The world changes. Life changes. Community changes. The need is the same: Togetherness. Evolution through adaptation. Indelibility which carries through the thread of generational life, whether that is a winding river trickle and wish for more or the interwoven love of Big Bend people and their capacity to listen, remember, value — carry history, carving canyons of legend for posterity, knowing that without the past we cannot have the future. So, with faith, I call to you, reader, to sing a rain dance once sung by innocent girl scouts, now remembered by a faithful devotee of the human race and nature alike, with the pure faith of a man who could write the book on Big Bend. Sing with me and Darren Wallis, a rain dance for all the world:
*This is thought to be based on a traditional Arapaho tribal song “Ani Couni Chaouani”.
Kate Keenan is a writer whose work has been published in Noise City Zine, The Ductile Anchor, Live at the Coffin Shop, The Bullard Bulletin, Pond Trade Magazine, MacroMicroCosm, and campfire stories for her four children, among others. Kate holds a Master Arts in English from the University of Texas at Tyler. Her residence straddles the worlds between her birthplace in the lush green of East Texas and the dazzling desert landscape of Big Bend. She’s usually sweaty from the Texas heat and is currently watching a rainstorm over the Chisos Mountains while typing at an ancient folding card table, coffee by her side. She is the founder and managing editor of Big Bend Literary Magazine. Kate is a proofreader, copywriter, social media marketer, and web designer. Find her at https://katekeenanmarketing.com.
After life as a Master Plumber turned expert beer consultant, Tony Drewry has spent the better part of the last ten years exploring in great depth the wild backcountry of Texas, Mexico, and the American Southwest, before landing in the Big Bend region of Far West Texas and Northern Mexico for an extended period. In this time, he's honed his photography while capturing some of the most beautiful scenery and nature that this world has to offer. While the adventures continue, he has begun to share visually some of his favorite captures across multiple mediums, and orally through spoken word and song. He's said that the Big Bend stole his heart at its first chance, but that was the beginning of much more. So stay tuned. His website is tonydrewry.myportfolio.com/.