West Texas has a long history of recurring drought, but under climate change, the Southwest has been experiencing record-breaking heatwaves, further drying out the soil and speeding the evaporation of water in lakes and reservoirs. Underground aquifers failed to regenerate. “What happens is that climate change comes on top and in many cases it can be the final straw that breaks the camel's back, but the camel is already overloaded,” said Hayhoe.
Other communities across a bone-dry Southwest are resorting to extraordinary measures to keep the water flowing. Robert Lee, also in the oil patch, has been hauling in water by tanker. So has Spicewood Beach, a resort town 40 miles from Austin, which has been trucking in water since early 2012.
San Angelo, a city of 100,000, dug a pipeline to an underground water source more than 60 miles away, and sunk half a dozen new wells.
Las Cruces, just across the border from the Texas panhandle in New Mexico, is drilling down 1,000 feet in search of water.
But those fixes are way out of reach for small, rural communities. Outside the RV parks for the oil field workers who are just passing through, Barnhart has a population of about 200.
“We barely make enough money to pay our light bill and we're supposed to find $300,000 to drill a water well?” said John Nanny, an official with the town's water supply company.
Last week brought some relief, with rain across the entire state of Texas. Rain gauges in some parts of west Texas registered two inches or more. Some ranchers dared to hope it was the beginning of the end of the drought.
But not Owens, not yet anyway. The underground aquifers needed far more rain to recharge, he said, and it just wasn't raining as hard as it did when he was growing up.
“We've got to get floods. We've got to get a hurricane to move up in our country and just saturate everything to replenish the aquifer,” he said. “Because when the water is gone. That's it. We're gone.”