When the drought dropped in on North Texas in 2010, it was considered more of an inconvenience than a looming crisis.
But in 2014, as the dry weather strengthened its chokehold on the region, the situation grew dire.
Lake levels across the region plummeted, prompting a wide range of watering restrictions.
Wichita Falls drew international attention for bringing recycled wastewater to the tap.
And west of Fort Worth, Mineral Wells and smaller Palo Pinto County towns scrambled for new sources of water.
Barring a post-Christmas miracle, 2014 will go down as the 13th-driest year on record in North Texas and the worst since 2005.
As of Saturday, 21.32 inches of rain had fallen at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport for the year, 14.46 inches below normal.
Since October 2010, some parts of Dallas-Fort Worth are looking at rain deficits of 40 to 50 inches.
“I’ve been saying for a while we’re not going to get out of hydrological drought in one season,” said Dan Huckaby, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Fort Worth. “… We still are going to need to hang our hat on the spring rainfall, and trying to project the springs months in advance is really difficult.”
A year of bad luck
While North Texas has been hard hit, other parts of the state got some relief in 2014.
“It’s been improving statewide,” State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said. “For a lot of the state, not including North Central Texas and the Panhandle, the drought is over.”
Any hope for avoiding tougher water restrictions in North Texas likely depends on El Niño, which occurs when above-normal sea surface temperatures develop off the Pacific coast of South America. That weather pattern tends to bring wetter winters to the southern half of the U.S.
The Climate Prediction Center’s three-month outlook for January-March shows above a better chance of average precipitation for most of Texas.
“We have a decent chance of being above normal — even normal rainfall would be beneficial,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “There’s no particular reason — other than bad luck — why certain parts of North Texas have done worse than other parts.”
Exceptional drought — the most serious category — stretches from Tarrant County west through Parker, Palo Pinto, Young and Stephens counties.
‘A first for us’
Tarrant County will be watching closely to see whether the predictions come true. If the Tarrant Regional Water District lakes drop to 60 percent, Stage 2, once-a-week watering restrictions are triggered. The district provides raw water to 98 percent of Tarrant County residents.
Overall, the district is at 61 percent of capacity. District officials have said they won’t immediately enact the restrictions but will work with its customer cities, including Fort Worth, Arlington and Mansfield, before putting the stricter rules into effect.
“We want to make sure we’re prepared and our customers are prepared to go into the next stage,” said Mary Gugliuzza, spokeswoman for the Fort Worth Water Department. “This level of restriction will be a first for us. It will be a learning experience for the Water Department and our customers.”
Tarrant County would be in a more difficult situation if not for its two East Texas reservoirs, Richland Chambers and Cedar Creek, which are currently providing almost all the water while the West Fork of the Trinity River remains in a drought to rival the 1950s.
The district’s George R. Shannon Wetlands has provided up to 20 percent of the daily supply by filtering water from the Trinity and placing it in Richland Chambers.
Using ‘potty water’
Other Texas cities have been forced to take more drastic steps.
Wichita Falls drew the most attention for using treated wastewater to prevent the taps from going dry.
“It looks like we can stretch it out to 2018 to 2019 if we don’t get any more rain,” said Daniel Nix, Wichita Falls’ utility operations manager.
Wichita Falls went to using “potty watter” to deal with what was deemed as an emergency. The city’s long-term plans are to return to indirect reuse, in which treated wastewater is pumped into a lake and eventually pumped back to the treatment plant.
The recycled wastewater has been a lifesaver.
“It gives us a little bit more time to plan for that eventuality for running out of water if the drought continues,” Nix said. “And that’s what we are going to do is continue to plan as if that is going to happen.”
Despite some initial hesitancy, Nix said, the program has been accepted by most residents and even had inquiries from the World Bank looking at it as a possibility for developing countries in water shortages.
Wichita Falls isn’t alone in looking for creative solutions to water shortfalls.
Big Spring was the first city in the state to implement direct reuse, albeit at a lower mixture with lake water than Wichita Falls. El Paso Water Utilities is in the planning stages to build a direct reuse wastewater treatment plant to go online in 2018 after levels in one of its main sources, the Rio Grande, plummeted the last two years.
“I think reuse is probably going to be part of the future, especially in Texas and California,” said Christina Montoya, a vice president at El Paso Water Utilities.
Brownwood has also explored the idea but has no made decisions. City Manager Bobby Rountree said the local support for the project fluctuates depending on lake levels.
‘We’ve got to have water’
While some cities have plans for more reuse, Mineral Wells will be looking at reverse osmosis to pull more water out of the Brazos River. The desalination process can be expensive because the higher the salt content, the more electricity that is needed.
Building the plant and renting the equipment is projected to cost about $6 million, according to the Palo Pinto Municipal Water District No. 1, with residential water rates expected to climb about 53 percent.
About 30 miles southwest of Mineral Wells, the cities of Strawn, Gordon and Mingus as well the Barton Water Supply Cooperative all fear running out of water within a year. All four entities have applied to Texas Water Development Board for emergency grants and hope to find out within 30 days whether they will be approved.
If they get the grants, the four entities would work together on a project to acquire groundwater somewhere in Erath County or Eastland County. The project, projected to cost $2 million, would take about 15 months to complete.
Currently, Strawn estimates that it has about 10 months of water, and Gordon, which has been supplying water to Mingus, estimates it has enough to last until Feb. 15
“Even if the money is not there, I don’t think we have much of a choice,” Strawn City Secretary Danny Miller said. “We’ve got to have water. We’re going to have to find a way to do this.”
Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698
Love Field, DFW discover life after the Wright Amendement.
The drought drags on
Rainfall shortages from October 2010 through November 2014:
DFW Airport: down 40.05 inches
Dallas Love Field: down 38.62 inches
Fort Worth Meacham: down 46.49 inches
Dallas Executive: down 51.73 inches
Fort Worth Alliance: down 45.84 inches
Arlington: down 45.57 inches
Denton: down 49.21 inches
Mineral Wells: down 36.63 inches
The driest years on record
1. 17.91 inches, 1921
2. 17.97 inches, 1910
3. 18.11 inches, 1899
4. 18.55 inches, 1956
5. 18.97 inches, 2005
6. 19.09 inches, 1934
7. 19.55 inches, 1954
8. 19.65 inches, 1901
9. 20.11 inches, 1948
10. 20.46 inches, 1963
11. 20.93 inches, 1909
12. 21.09 inches, 1929
13. 21.32 inches, 2014 (through Saturday)
14. 22.08 inches, 1980
15. 22.23 inches, 1972
Source: National Weather Service, Fort Worth