The legacy of Charlie Flagg: narratives of drought and overcoming the monster in West Texas water policy debates

Ken Baake


The 40th anniversary of the publication of Elmer Kelton’s 1973 novel The Time it Never Rained coincides with one of the most severe droughts on record in Texas. Meanwhile, as of 2005, local groundwater conservation districts in Texas are required by law to determine how much groundwater they want to conserve for future generations. Such policy decisions have led to debates in West Texas among agricultural producers over whether pumping restrictions amount to erosion of the famous “rule of capture” and private property rights. This article presents Texas water law history, the Ogallala Aquifer, and its users as a continuing story in which producers and government policymakers are actors. This paper first summarizes the ways in which water challenges in the American West and elsewhere have been classified according to different disciplines and then shows how each of those ways of knowing can be understood as a kind of storytelling. The author uses Kelton’s drought novel and scholarly insights into how narrative works as a means of interpreting and contextualizing comments made by producers and others at several West Texas agricultural water policy hearings. The article concludes that policy-makers must consider the human instinct to translate complex and often contradictory knowledge from multiple domains into a less confusing story line.


narrative, Elmer Kelton, groundwater management, drought, Ogallala Aquifer

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Texas Water Journal

The Texas Water Journal is an online, peer-reviewed journal devoted to the timely consideration of Texas water resources management, research, and policy issues from a multidisciplinary perspective that integrates science, engineering, law, planning, and other disciplines. It also provides updates on key state legislation and policy changes by Texas administrative agencies. The journal is published by the Texas Water Journal, a nonprofit organization, in cooperation with the Texas Water Resources Institute, part of Texas A&M AgriLife.

ISSN 2160-5319
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