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West Texas landowners can get federal money to clear invasive plants to fight drought

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Trees are usually considered a good thing. But in West Texas, the federal government is paying to get rid of them. It's part of the Drought Resilience Incentive Program - DRIP for short. Sheridan Wood with member station KACU reports it's a plan to mitigate drought that not everyone is convinced will work.

SHERIDAN WOOD, BYLINE: The goal of the program is to get more water into West Texas communities, like for pools and watering lawns. The idea is to remove overpopulated species, like prickly pear cacti, mesquite and cedar trees.

CY TONGATE: These trees are preventing rainwater from infiltrating into the soil and getting into the groundwater.

WOOD: That's Cy Tongate with the local water conservation district. He says rain will get into the ground easier and fill lakes by planting native grasses instead of trees.

TONGATE: They soak up more water than the ecosystem can really handle.

WOOD: Conservationists agree that the West Texas landscape didn't always look like this. Overgrazing caused soil erosion, making it easier for the woody species to take over. And with fire suppression, there was nothing to stop them from overpopulating the landscape. Ecologist Karl Flocke with the state forest service says it's changed in the last 150 years.

KARL FLOCKE: We saw a conversion of what is mostly a grassy area with interspersed woody species to more a woody region with interspersed grassy areas.

WOOD: With more than 93% of Texas land privately owned, it's really up to landowners, like John Hays of Brown County, to help restore it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ATV RUMBLING)

WOOD: Hays is a radiologist by day and also owns more than 1,300 acres. He shows me around his land on his ATV. There are green, open pastures dotted with pink and yellow wildflowers. Bison are grazing, and whitetail deer bounce around in the distance.

JOHN HAYS: I'm trying to make this place like it used to be.

WOOD: This is the half of the property he's already cleared on his own. It's more grassland for his bison. Now he plans to use the federal grant money to clear 80 more acres.

HAYS: Even with the feds or state paying half, you're still going to end up paying - it's still going to cost me 20 grand of my pocket money to do that 80 acres.

WOOD: Money is a big holdup for other landowners, Hays says. Programs like DRIP only cover a portion of the cost. And, he says, Texas landowners are skeptical of federal programs.

HAYS: A lot of people don't like that. I don't want feds anywhere around my - you know, my place.

WOOD: There's also skepticism that DRIP will do what it's supposed to - get more water into surrounding communities - says ecologist Bradford Wilcox with Texas A&M.

BRADFORD WILCOX: In terms of a strategy for increasing water during drought, it's not a very effective strategy.

WOOD: He says that's simply because there isn't a lot of rainfall in this part of Texas.

WILCOX: Most of the water is going to be used up by plants, say, whether it's grasses or trees.

WOOD: He still believes, however, replacing the trees and restoring the rolling plains is important for biodiversity. But the DRIP program, he says, should not be marketed as a way to increase community water. About 40 Texas landowners have agreed to be part of the project, and the clearing of about 4,000 acres of Texas plains is expected to start later this year.

For NPR News, I'm Sheridan Wood in Abilene.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sheridan Wood