quality is not a new issue in Texas.
Long before pollution became a common term, the Pecos
River was notorious for the odious quality of its water. Cowboys
who'd herded stock across it, or worked along its banks, liked to
josh newcomers to their outfit by "recalling" a time they'd seen
a coyote venture cautiously out from the brush, take a long drink
from the river, and then whirl around as if he'd been shot only
to begin frantically licking its rear end.
"Why 'n the world would he do that?" the incredulous cowpoke would
"To git the bad taste outta it's mouth," came the punch line.
In other words, water from the
Pecos tasted pretty darn bad.
Less known is that the water from the upper reaches of the Brazos
River also is brackish and alkaline. But its not nearly as bad as
a certain 19th century military record says.
The U.S. Army, which garrisoned a string of forts
along the state's western frontier to protect the populace from
hostile Indians, was particularly interested in water. And compiling
"In making our report to the Chief Quartermaster of the Department
it was necessary to convey an accurate idea of the adequacy and
character of the water supply, that being a most important item
in the practicability of any point for military as well as domestic
purposes," wrote cavalry veteran H.H. McConnell in the ponderous
prose of 1889.
McConnell came to Texas in 1867 with the 6th Cavalry and spent much
of his time in the military at Fort
Richardson in Jack
County. After his discharge from the Army, he stayed in Jacksboro
as a newspaper publisher. His book, "Five Years a Cavalryman: Or
Sketches of Regular Army Life on the Texas Frontier, Twenty Odd
Years Ago," is a classic Texana title.
A literate enlisted man, he often was tasked with handling Army
paperwork. In compiling a report for the ranking quartermaster in
Texas, McConnell was told to include an analysis of a sampling taken
from the Brazos.
A few days later the post quartermaster walked into McConnell's
headquarters office and said, "Well, you can state in your report
that the doctor finds that the Brazos water contains one ounce of
salt to each quart,"
McConnell protested that the ratio seemed ridiculously high. Water
from the Brazos tasted bad, he said, but not that bad.
The quartermaster agreed, but that was the ratio the post surgeon
had given the colonel for inclusion in the report and McConnell
duly noted the doctor's finding. After all, there's a right way,
a wrong way and the Army way to do things.
But just because the finding had been reduced to writing did not
mean McConnell found it any more believable. Asking around, McConnell
learned that the initial stage of the water quality test had been
handled by the colonel's orderly, an old Prussian soldier named
Stroop. His instructions had been to boil a gallon of river water
down to a half gallon for analysis by the post surgeon.
Knowing Stroop was a stiff, by-the-book soldier not capable of pulling
off a practical joke, McConnell drew him aside and asked how he
had handled his assignment. After gaining a promise of secrecy,
the Prussian confessed that he had fallen asleep after placing the
water on the fire. When he woke up to the colonel's impatient voice
asking him if the job was done yet, he discovered that almost all
the water had boiled away.
the orderly grabbed a handful of salt, threw it in the container,
and poured in enough water to make a half-gallon.
When the doctor analyzed the water, he correctly detected an extremely
high level of sodium chloride. The only problem was that his finding
had absolutely nothing to do with the actual water quality of the
Brazos. It would not have been militarily prudent to go through
all the red tape it would have taken to fix the error, so McConnell
said nothing about the botched test.
That's why somewhere in the National Archives is a handwritten report
in faded ink asserting that the Brazos River is about as salty as
the Gulf of Mexico.