SAN ANGELO, Texas – We should have driven south. Or west. End of story.

We should have struck out for airports in Austin, San Antonio, or Midland-Odessa, all of which had escaped the worst effects of the killer ice storm that last late week locked down much of Texas. What we should not have done was to have driven north out of San Angelo on Highway 87, heading for DFW.

Just hours before the powerful winter storm blew down the plains, my inbound flight that Wednesday evening had landed in San Angelo, a mid-sized city set within the rumpled terrain of west Texas and through which the Concho River flows. I was there to speak about the environmental implications of the crippling drought currently wracking the Edwards Plateau and the larger southwest, an irony not lost on the valiant souls who braved sleet and snow to gather within the warm embrace of the San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts to talk about aridity.

The irony is miscast, though. This storm, which dropped maybe one to two inches of precipitation, will do nothing to replenish the area’s diminished aquifers, trickle-thin creeks, and bone-dry reservoirs.

Char Miller
Char Miller

Not that the maps of the Concho River watershed tell this tale of woe. Google, for instance, O.C. Fisher Lake, an Army Corps of Engineers project dating back to the late 1940s. Originally established for flood control along the northern branch of the Concho River, it is now considered a reservoir, and to judge from its graphic representation online it’s doing a bang-up job: it looks big, full, and oh-so blue. The same holds true for nearby Twin Buttes Reservoir, a 1963 project of the U. S. Bureau of Reclamation impounding water from the southern and middle branches of the Concho.

Nothing could be more misleading. The San Angelo Standard-Times recently published statistics confirming that neither contains much of anything other than beached carp carcasses. O.C. Fisher is at seventeen percent of capacity and Twin Buttes barely registers at one percent. Only the municipally owned Lake Nasworthy (Nasty Water, local kids call it) appears full. This brimful is a mirage, the result of a shell-game-siphoning of water from other sources. Refilling these lakes will take years of plenteous rainfall.

That plenty is not in the cards, if recent climate-change data proves accurate. Although west Texas will not be quite as parched as New Mexico, Arizona, and Eastern California, it is expected to lose 15-20 percent of its annual rainfall over the rest of the century.

Add to this bad news the impact that water-intensive fracking operations are having on water quality and quantity across the Permian Basin oil patch, and the needs of a growing population for the wet stuff, and the odds shorten that the Concho River water system will be quite as a rich resource as it once was.

That dire possibility led one rancher to drive twenty miles to the San Angelo museum, peering through an ice-glazed windshield, so he could speak his piece. A former oilfield operator, he recognized the need for the work fracking is generating, yet is anxious about how it is compromising the land and his grandchildren’s future: would they even be able to live in the tiny community of Water Valley, his home and their heritage?

This gentleman’s anguish helped drive our conversation toward how to to change water politics in the west, how to reframe our relationship to this scarce resource such that we see it as a commons, an essential part of our common wealth.

Doing so would alter how we value white gold, a reconsideration that could lead us to better manage threats like fracking to the ground and surface waters that sustain us. Another key is to develop policies and incentives to ratchet down demand by farmers and ranchers, urbanites, industries, and municipalities; to use drip irrigation in the fields and yards and maximize low-flow infrastructure everywhere. We agreed, too, that it would be wise to encourage upstream and downstream users to understand their shared, life-affirming need for a resilient watershed, to remember why San Angelo’s nickname is the Oasis of West Texas.

The city seemed a haven in another sense: The next day, the sun broke through, sending streams of melting ice into gutters and drains. Although all flights were canceled out of the regional airport, I assumed the meltoff was occurring elsewhere and reasoned that driving the 250 miles to DFW would be a fairly straightforward matter.

So on that freezing-cold Saturday, I headed to a car rental office and met another strandee, Teresa Schlosser, a Lt. Colonel in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The smartest decision I made all day was to say yes when she asked for a lift. As befits someone who did wartime duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, and contributed to relief efforts in Thailand after the crushing 2004 tsunami, and the following year along the Katrina-flattened Gulf Coast, Teresa was steady source of calm in a landscape of crazy.

Ten miles out of the city, the conditions on Highway 87 began to deteriorate. Clear and dry roadbeds narrowed to wheel-width bands of black hemmed in by craggy-iced borders. Crawling north toward Abilene, where we would intersect with Interstate 20, the macadam was glassed over, hard and slippery. We should have turned back, and returned to San Angelo’s warm comforts, but did not.

After all, we expected I-20 to offer a wide concrete expanse, a swift run into the Metroplex. We weren’t wrong, exactly. One lane was open, and the tires sang as we accelerated east. That welcome music lasted until we topped a rise and looked down a long slope. Stretching out as far as the eye could see was a disheartening sight: a double-line of 18-wheelers, red lights glowing against the snow-white fields. None of the truckers had a clue why they were idling. With a flick or two of her fingers, Teresa discovered that the jam extended nearly 100 miles to Fort Worth. We should have turned around, but did not.

Instead, we peeled south on Highway 16, heading toward Desdemona. Rolling through the stark and desolate world (even the stock ponds looked drained), not a creature was stirring, not even a dual-exhaust pickup. Had we realized that Desdemona was an oil boomtown long-gone bust, a virtual community without any services, we might have never ventured forth. Yet once there, how could we not spin our wheels farther east in hopes that Stephenville was better situated?

It too was shut down. So were Bluff Dale and Tolar. Along the way we encountered more traffic, company that proved problematic — an increasing number of vehicles lost their grip. When an oncoming F-150 fishtailed into our lane, I was able to fade left while it shot into a ditch to our right, a high-anxiety moment I replicated for the minivan driver into whose path we nearly veered. A lucky slam-and-pop braking maneuver vaulted our tiny Mazda in the right direction, averting a set of crumpled fenders and bent egos.

The closer we got to the Metroplex, the more perilous our route. We skied over its many bridges, overpasses, and fly ramps, for how else describe the heart-arresting thrusts, bumps, and gyrations that jolted the car as we bounced over two-foot swells of ice? Moguls was Teresa’s apt term for these jagged ruts, and to hesitate within their rough-slick embrace was to get locked in; abandoned vehicles were everywhere, like so much metal litter.

Relief came only after we took a slow turn into the airport car-rental lot and boarded the shuttle bus, nine and a half hours after we had pulled out of San Angelo. Safe, yes, but the sensation of that trip is embodied still: Like a sailor returned to land after a lengthy voyage, if close my eyes I can feel my core dip, lurch, and drop, a seismic register of our long day’s journey into night.

We should have driven south. Or west. End of story.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and author of numerous books, including “Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy.” His columns appear regularly in the Guardian. The above op-ed first appeared on the website.