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As rain stays away, a parched region seeks relief

In towns across Northwest Texas, residents are praying for rain and hoping their lakes don’t dry up.

And as the drought enters its fourth year, water restrictions are also being ramped up.

In Rule, about 170 miles northwest of Fort Worth, officials are asking residents to limit water use to 5,000 gallons a month.

Wichita Falls, which drew national attention this summer for tapping into its treated wastewater, remains in a Stage 5 drought catastrophe.

And in Mineral Wells, where outdoor watering was banned in September, officials hope to make a decision by Saturday on connecting to another water source.

Though more than 51 percent of the state is out of the drought, up from 34 percent a year ago, much of Northwest Texas is in extreme or exceptional drought, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor.

“You draw a line from Wichita Falls to Abilene and down to the Rio Grande and pretty much everybody is in trouble,” said David Kuehler, general manager of the North Central Texas Municipal Water Authority in Munday, about 155 miles northwest of Fort Worth.

Across Texas, 792 water systems are facing mandatory water restrictions, including 322 that rely on surface water, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

The North Central Texas Municipal Water Authority provides water to Rule and 10 other communities in Knox, Haskell and Stonewall counties, areas that are heavily invested in farming and ranching. More than a year ago, those water providers were asked to cut consumption by 25 percent.

The water authority’s main supply is Miller’s Creek Reservoir, which was down to 7.8 percent of capacity last week. The lake, once a hot spot for bass fishing, has had only one inflow of water in four years.

“If we don’t get rain this winter, the lake will be dry by the time it heats up next summer,” Kuehler said.

‘We’re going to use it’

To meet the consumption restrictions, Rule, population 700 and the hometown of Baylor football coach Art Briles, is trying to cut household use to 5,000 gallons a month.

How difficult is that? Depends on the size of the household.

According to the American Waterworks website, drinktap.org, the average daily household water use in 2005, which included outdoor watering, was 254 gallons. But the daily per capita use was 98 gallons and could be as little as 45.2 per day if leaks are fixed and water-efficient appliances and toilets are installed.

Outdoor watering is banned and about 80 percent of the 316 customers in Rule comply with the 5,000-gallon-per-month limit, City Secretary Teresa Sorrells said. One residence has had water meters replaced twice as the customer complained that the readings were inaccurate, and others are simply determined to use more water, she said.

“Some of the face-to-face comments we get are ‘We’re going to pay for it and we’re going to use it,’ ” Sorrells said. “I try to give people the benefit of the doubt but some won’t cut back.”

Customers who don’t reduce usage face a surcharge of $25 for every 1,000 gallons used over 5,000 monthly.

“We have one household that continually does this,” Sorrells said. “For the last 10 months, they’ve used 19,000 gallons of water. I guess they think it’s cheaper to pay the penalties than get a plumber to fix the leak.”

Where’s El Niño?

The cutbacks on water aren’t limited to rural areas west of Fort Worth.

The Tarrant Regional Water District, which provides raw water to about 98 percent of Tarrant County, predicts about a 20 percent chance that once-a-week outdoor watering restrictions could be imposed by year’s end.

The capacity of the district’s lakes was just under 64 percent last week. If it drops to 60 percent, Stage 2 restrictions would be triggered.

“But I don’t think we’re going to get there,” said David Marshall, the district’s engineering services director. “Our modeling suggests we’re going to see some recovery.”

The North Texas Municipal Water District, which supplies water to Dallas suburbs including Plano and Frisco, is imposing tougher restrictions. Last week, the board voted to limit outdoor watering to once every two weeks.

The long-range outlooks are predicting a wetter winter based on the expectation of an El Niño in the Pacific Ocean off South America. An El Niño tends to bring wetter and cooler winter weather to Texas.

“If that pans out, we should start to see better chances for wetter weather toward the end of November and into December,” said Greg Patrick, a meteorologist with National Weather Service in Fort Worth. “That is the time to start looking for it.”

Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon, however, said it will take time — or an unexpected flood — to start filling lakes west of Fort Worth.

The possibility of El Niño is “not a whole lot but it’s something,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “I’m optimistic that the degradation will slow down at these lakes but it’s going to take a couple of months of rain before these lakes start refilling.”

‘All in the same boat’

Last November, Texas voters approved Proposition 6, which created two funds to finance projects in the state water plan.

During their last session, legislators approved taking $2 billion from the state’s rainy-day fund to set up a revolving pool of money for low-interest loans, which will be paid back to the Texas Water Development Board. The plan is to fund $500 million to $800 million in water projects each year for a decade.

Last week, the Texas Roundtable on Water, a group of water and energy experts, made recommendations to legislators to ensure the state’s long-term water supply.

“While the population in Texas continues to boom, the future water supply becomes more uncertain,” Weir Labatt, a former member of the Texas Water Development Board, said in a statement. “If consumption continues at the same pace, and we don’t come together to drastically change how we operate, our state will be in crisis mode before we know it.”

For Mineral Wells and other parts of Palo Pinto County, that crisis is here now.

The Palo Pinto Municipal Water District No. 1 is scheduled to make recommendations next month about water options for Mineral Wells. Among the options are adding a pipeline to Lake Mineral Wells, which currently isn’t being used as a water supply, and using reverse osmosis to filter nutrient-rich water from the Brazos River.

“I think we’re committed to the pipeline to Lake Mineral Wells and reverse osmosis to the Brazos River if we can get the water rights,” Mineral Wells Mayor Mike Allen said. “You know, I’m concerned for everybody from here to Wichita Falls and to Abilene. We’re all in the same boat.”

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