One dramatic chapter of the energy-crisis story of the 1970s has been written in this little town.
Two years ago, the entire population was severed from its natural gas supply and forced to find other ways to heat homes. The townspeople pulled together, and Crystal City survived.
The setting is most uncommon. Driving the dusty highways recently, one could not help but notice ubiquitious oil derricks dotting the plain. This is one of the nation's prime areas for exploration and oil production.
Yet for all the liquid energy that is tapped, the townspeople of Crystal City heat their homes with wood.
As we drive, Alejandro Perez points to a field bounded by barbed wire in which are stacked three or four dozen cords of mequite logs.
"Here is our supply," he announces. "At first a lot of people. . .thought it was too primitive to use this wood for heat. But then it got cold."
In the distance is an open, airy tableau of south Texas -- the plateau separating the Rio Grande basin from the Chihuahuan Desert. The flatness is broken by clumps of vegetation: gnarled live oak, thorny mesquite, pods of prickly pear, spiny century plant, Spanish dagger, yucca with tall shoots of ivory fingers.
Ranching and irrigated farming represent one way of using this stingy land. Most of the country's predominantly Mexican-American population work on the farms or in the town's main industry, a canning factory.
In the early winter near the Mexican border, temperatures still are rather hot in the daytime, but they drop into the upper 30s at night. With the six-week cold spell approaching, Perez said he soon would be working hard to keep the community wood cache filled.
As director of the city's Center for Human Services, Perez is into the third year of what began as an emergency operation to get Crystal City through one winter. Now it is routine for city workers to scour pastures and creek bottoms for unwanted mesquite logs and stockpile them for the 8,200 residents. Most households in town use the logs in their army surplus wood-burning stoves.
Here is how Crystal City ended up using wood for fuel.
In the fall of 1977, Lo Vaca Gathering Co., supplier of natural gas to Crystal City's municipally owned gas company, shut off its valves at the city limits. The city had refused to pay higher rates for the gas and had gone to court along with other cities that used the same supplier. Lo Vaca won, after a protracted fight.
Crystal City, unlike the other cities, had not been charging residents the higher rate in the interim and holding the disputed amount in escrow. The city's young, populist leaders (the Raza Unida political party had come to power in the county four years earlier) were very sure of their case. Crystal ended up without any money to settle its debt, and a judge ruled Lo Vaca could turn off the gas.
All homes were affected, rich and poor alike. This was the first case in the nation where an entire community was disconnected.
Shortly after service was cut off that fall, the Community Services Administration (CSA) in Washington supplied a $310,000 grant to the city to deal with its problem. At first, officials considered using the money to pay the past-due gas bill and resume service. But that ideas was scuttled when nearby towns protested that to use federal funds in such a manner would be to reward Crystal City for negligent practices.
City officials used part of the money to buy propane tanks for every household, but it was found that the propane would prove more expensive than natural gas over the course of the winter. It was unlikely that most of the town's impoverished residents would have the money to refill their tanks.
Three days before Christmas, the cold weather hit. With conventional solution escaping them, city officials made contact with a group of architects in Austin who were knowledgeable in innoovative energy technology.
Architects Pliny and Daria Fisk and their associates from the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems -- a sort of backyard tinkering operation in the passive solar field at that time -- hit upon the idea for wood for heat. Army surplus stoves could be had cheaply, and mesquite was so plentiful that area ranches considered it a nuisance.
The technology seemed appropriate. Texas churches and the Chamber of Commerce donated toward the emergency energy operation. Wood-gatherers were provided by the CSA-funded Zavala County Economic Development Corp. Fisk purchased 1,000 Korean War tent stoves, and set to work installing them.
This was done amid continuing political free-for-alls.
The sometimes strident Raza Unida leaders were at odds with Texas' conservative Democratic establishment. Several months earlier, Gov. Dolph Briscoe had been irritated by a Crystal City proposal to build a cooperative greenhouse using federal money. Briscoe warned that the Chicano activists were attempting to make south Texas a "little Cuba," and he threatened to block the spending of federal money for any other collectivist schemes. So state aid was not forthcoming.
Then, too, the Raza Unida leaders were far from united, often bickering among themselves over what approaches to take.
Work proceeded, with the Fisks and others trying to stay out of the political fighting -- a difficult task for Anglo architects in the south Texas barrios. But by the end of January, 960 stoves had been hooked up, and 500 cords of wood stockpiled.
For Crystal City, that was the beginning of the future. And the new ideas did not end in the winter of 1977.
Driving through town, Perez points out the proliferation of stovepipes poking from rooftops. Soon we arrive at a small house on the edge of town. It, too, uses a wood-burning stove, but there is a difference. Zigzagging sections of pipe lead from this stove to a rooftop water heater. The heater is covered with glass and connected to a water supply by garden hose.
This is a jerry built system in which exhaust from the stove supplements a solar water heater. There may be many more of these in Crystal City in the next few years. Perez [word illegible] one is not arranged very neatly. tAnd he also has doubts about the quality of a greenhouse that is attached to the south side of the home in an attempt to capture the sun's heat in winter. But this is a "demonstration project."
The home's owner, Marita Garcia, says she thinks this is a step in the right direction. She almost always has hot water by mid-morning, and the contraption attracts visitors to her house almost every day.
"Pliny Fisk had this idea, and we experimented with Mrs. Garcia's house," Perez says. "We think it's a good start. The water heater is homemade, using salvaged materials. We are going to hire some workers to put them together for more people. Maybe one day this will be a business for Crystal City."
Perez is not the only south Texan who has been converted to the "appropriate technology" philosophy. Ten miles away in the town of Carrizo Springs, the concept has it advocates.
This town still uses natural gas for home heating, but the pipe system is antiquated and leaky. David Ojeda estimates that up to 50 percent of the supply escapes through faulty valves and seals. As in other small towns, gas costs are increasing and the population is not. Thus, town operation of the gas utility is becoming less and less economical.
"The belief has always been: 'Bring in a General Motors plant to give people jobs; then they can pay the higher bills.'" Ojeda, director of the city's Community Services Agency, says half-jokingly. "But that is unrealistic. Most people during the winter have this option: will it be heat or food?"
Crystal City's experience in energy self-reliance seems to point a way out of the problem for Carrizo Springs. "We beleive there's a lot of room to work in." Ojeda says. "We are looking at wood, at waste from farms, at earth materials, at solar heat. And I think it's coming from the community -- people want it."
Ojeda and Perez are attempting to develop a multi-county organization to promote alternative energy sources. A second generation of Fisk's passive-solar house is found in Carrizo Springs. The attached greenhouse is more solid than Garcia's; there is an air circulation system; the rooftop water heater is connected with neatly plumbed copper pipes. While neighbors are not exactly rushing to build their own, there has been generally favorable comment, Ojeda says.
At his Austin workshop the next day, Plinky Fisk speaks philosophically of the neeed for community self-reliance and inventive solutions to energy problems. He and his wife, Daria, former assistant professors of architecture at the University of Texas, now run a nonprofit research center that looks for low-cost ways to cope with energy problems.
The gas cutoff, says Fisk, hastened Crystal City into a future that other towns eventually will share.
"Crystal City is an example of practically every rural town in America over the next dozen years,' he says. "Energy costs are growing faster than people in these little towns, with their limited economic bases, can keep up. And the idea of everyone in the country using the same type of energy -- natural gas, heating oil, nuclear power, coal -- is becoming obsolete."
Fisk predicts that each little town will be forced to come up with its own unique solution to its own particular energy problem. The solution, he feels, almost always will involve local resources that are now being overlooked.
If the town is Crystal City, situated in the middle of mesquite country under almost cloudless skies, the solution might be to burn wood and tap into solar power.
Fisk soon will embark on a federally funded demostration project to build and install 120 solar water heaters in the Crystal City vicinity. The heater he has developed is encircled by old fluorescent light tubes to magnify the sunlight. Fisk estimates each unit will cost $70 to build and install; commercial solar water heaters start at several hundred dollars.
Fisk beleives that education is a key element in sparking energy innovations. Instead of teaching how to make lamps and chairs in school vocational education classes, he says, the curriculum should cover solar collectors and other homemade energy devices.
"It will take a long time for most people to come to grips with the fact that energy is a problem that eludes conventional universal solutions," he says. "What is needed is a multifaceted approach to match a social and technological needs.
"For instance, in a place like south Texas, there is a tremendous amount of mesquite and of sunlight, so the idea is to be as unsophisticated as possible about it.
"In New England, an airtight woodburning stove with an afterburner costs several hundred dollars and quickly pays for itself with its efficiency. But there are only six weeks of cold in Crystal City, so it would take three or four years to pay for such a stove. You've got to look at the region you're in. The technology will be very, very different and diversified."