By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
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Dick Rogers began learning the cattle business at the age of nine, when his father put him on a horse and told him to keep the cows out of Oyster Creek. It was a maddening job come deep summer, when the heifers found the spring-fed stream hard to resist.
"It'd be so hot, you'd run this one out and another one would go right back in," Rogers recalls. "Kept you swimming your horse all the time." Rogers still ranches along Oyster Creek, on 1,300 acres in Brazoria County that his great-grandfather settled more than 175 years ago. For four generations, the Oyster has been a vital source of water for the family's livestock and, to hear Dick Rogers tell it, almost as reliable as an old friend.
But the Oyster Creek his father's cattle found so inviting is little more than a trickle now. Water that was chest-high to a horse when Rogers was a boy flows so feebly it can't get past the wild hyacinth choking the creek bed. Rogers doesn't chase the cows from Oyster Creek anymore, but sometimes he has to pull them out when they look for water and become mired in the muddy bottom.
Rogers didn't just wake up to this situation. The springs are gone, he says. So are the rice fields that for decades drained into the creek from Fort Bend County. And while the Upper Gulf Coast hasn't suffered the devastating drought that has afflicted other parts of the state, it's been drier than usual the past few years.
"Creeks change from year to year," Rogers says matter-of-factly. "Toughest drought we had was in '57. That's when the creek got the most driest other than this last time."
Maybe because ranching is equal parts hard work, patience and faith, Dick Rogers doesn't linger on things that seem beyond his control. And if Lisa Rogers hadn't fallen off a horse in 1996, she too might have figured Oyster Creek would take care of itself. But suddenly unable to work beside her husband, Lisa had time to listen when her neighbors complained that something was standing in the way of their water.
The speculation centered on a ten-mile earthen levee built in 1984 to protect the future homes and businesses of Sienna Plantation, a 6,500-acre development in Fort Bend County just north of the Rogerses' ranch. Designed to hold off the floodwaters of the Brazos River, the levee was approved by state regulators after the district's engineers assured them that for landowners outside the levee, life would go on as if it had never been built.
And for a time, it did. But by the spring of 1998, Lisa and Dick had to abandon their traditional reliance on Oyster Creek and start pumping groundwater for their cattle. The well set them back $10,000 and added more than $100 to their monthly electricity bill. Convinced the levee was to blame, Lisa filed a complaint with the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission in October 1998. It took more than two years, but her suspicions were apparently confirmed last December. The TNRCC accused the Sienna Levee Improvement District, builders of the $10 million structure, of illegally diverting the flow of Oyster Creek to the Brazos River.
The TNRCC, hoping to resolve the problem quickly, proposed that the levee district, or LID, pay a $28,000 penalty and engineer a solution to restore the creek's flow. But the LID rejected the offer, claiming the Fort Bend County Drainage District and a Sienna Plantation developer were responsible for diverting the creek. Now, state engineers are reviewing a LID proposal to determine if it can get the water moving again.
Meanwhile, the competing interests that supposedly had been addressed before the levee was built 16 years ago have to be revisited under entirely different circumstances.
"Obviously they still have to be concerned with flooding," says Dan Joyner, an attorney for the TNRCC. "They don't want to put too much water back in, but they want to put enough back in so everybody can water their cattle, irrigate their land, whatever they need to do. It's a hydrological issue."
That's probably not the word Dave Tidwell would use, but he's a little annoyed these days. A retired HL&P lineman who leases 300 acres of pastureland between the Rogers ranch and Sienna Plantation, Tidwell bartered a truckload of fence posts to water his 70 cows last summer. After Tropical Storm Allison dropped seven inches of rain on Brazoria County, he figured he wouldn't need to cut another deal this year. But a month after the storm, Oyster Creek is no better for it. The only appreciable water through Tidwell's pasture sits in inky, stagnating pools covered with algae. With the worst of summer to come, Tidwell isn't sure what he'll do for water, short of a rain dance.
"They sure enough got a bunch of water higher up there that could have come down where we could get it, if it didn't go into the river," Tidwell says. "Ought to be a way to turn at least a certain amount of that water this-a-way."
In November 1528, about 80 Spanish gold hunters survived a shipwreck and washed ashore at the mouth of Oyster Creek on a flotilla of log rafts. After a few days on the desolate, wind-raked salt marsh infested with mosquitoes and populated by a root-eating tribe of Carancahua, they felt compelled to give it a name: Isla de Mal Hado, Island of Evil Destiny. Indeed, all but seven of the wayward Spaniards -- historians reckon they were the first non-natives on Texas soil -- would die of starvation and disease there, and those who didn't never found any gold.