Dwindling reservoirs force Wichita Falls to ban all outdoor watering

A brown yard has become a badge of honor in Wichita Falls, dead proof that residents are doing their part to conserve water.

And today, when unprecedented Stage 4 emergency drought restrictions take effect, banning all outdoor watering, most homeowners will begin earning a badge.

Resourceful residents have already been collecting “gray water” while they shower, installing rainwater-harvesting systems and even drilling wells in a desperate effort to save their landscapes.

“It has become a very serious issue,” city spokesman Barry Levy said.

“A lot of places have gotten some rain, but we are hurting big time. And from all the weather models, we’re not going to get any relief anytime soon,” he said.

The tough restrictions came about because Wichita Falls’ two primary reservoirs — Lakes Arrowhead and Kickapoo — dropped below 30 percent of capacity, said Daniel Nix, operations manager for the city’s public utilities. A smaller third reservoir, Kemp Lake, is down to just 25 percent of capacity.

“It’s pretty grim,” Nix said.

But in the face of the crisis, Wichita Falls, a city of 104,000, has compiled a remarkable conservation record, cutting water use by more than half this summer.

“It was wonderfully shocking this summer to see how serious the citizens have taken our situation,” Levy said.

Water use dropped from 40 million gallons a day to 17 million over the summer, Nix said. Under Stage 4, the city hopes to see usage drop to as low as 14 million gallons a day.

Wichita Falls has also put some teeth into its water-wise push.

Since February, when Stage 3 restrictions began limiting watering to one day a week, a city hotline has been taking calls from residents reporting scofflaws.

The city has issued 2,660 citations for illegal watering, with fines starting at $25 plus court costs and ratcheting up to $500 and $2,000 for second and third infractions, Levy said.

The city also introduced surcharges for people using over 7,480 gallons per month, the average residential consumption, Nix said.

Under Stage 4, the surcharges will triple, he said.

Large industries must conduct internal water audits to determine whether they can take additional conservation steps, then submit a report to the city within 60 days, Levy said.

Widespread fall rains have helped much of Texas recover from a relentless three-year drought. Twenty percent of the state is now drought-free, the most since January 2011, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Statewide reservoir levels remain critically low, at 62 percent of capacity, even with a 3 percent rise from a month ago, according to the Texas Water Development Board.

Levels in the Tarrant Regional Water District were at 66.5 percent Friday. In the Austin area, Lakes Travis and Buchanan, which provide water for 1 million people, are only 36 percent full.

Across Texas, 791 water systems are enforcing restrictions, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Nurseries devastated

Rain has been scarce for so long that Wichita Falls officials are already working to devise Stage 5 restrictions.

“We got rain in June and July, but we are still behind 6.25 inches for the year,” Nix said, noting that Wichita Falls averages 29 inches annually. In 2011, when the city recorded 100 100-degree days, only 13 inches fell.

“The strange thing is, we looked at 114 years of weather data and during that time, we never had two consecutive years of rainfall below 20 inches until 2011 and 2012. If we don’t get any rain in November and December, it will be a third year,” Nix said.

The watering ban will have a tremendous impact on plant life, said David Graf, a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service agent in Wichita County.

“There are dead trees all over the county. Now that we can’t water at all, a lot more are likely to go,” he said.

The restrictions have devastated nurseries and landscapers, said Katherine Smith, co-owner of Smith’s Gardentown Farms, a 65-year-old family business that was forced to close this summer.

“We’ve had three really tough years. In 2011, there was the extreme heat and no rain. We lost a huge portion of our stock. We restocked in 2012 and had a decent year because people had lost all their plants. By February, the city was already talking about Stage 4, and people just stopped buying plants,” she said.

“We had to close down and we weren’t sure if we would ever reopen. We reopened this fall to sell things like pumpkins that don’t need water. We are down from more than 20 employees to seven,” Smith said.

Residents are finding ways to cope.

“A lot of people are using gray water. They take a bucket with them into the shower and use that to water their flower beds. They are doing the same thing with dishwater and when they are cooking,” Levy said.

Many have also started harvesting rainwater, Smith said.

“People have gotten really serious about conservation. This summer, we told people to just stop watering and let the grass go,” she said.

Run on water wells

There has also been a run on drilling private water wells, George Berre said.

“I’m busier than I’ve ever been,” said Berre, who has drilled wells since 1994. “At one time, I had 100 people on a waiting list. There’s a bunch of out-of-town people who have come in and started drilling.”

A shallow aquifer underlies Wichita Falls. A typical well can be drilled for $2,500, and a pump runs about $1,200, Berre said.

“There’s a city ordinance that prohibits using it as potable water. People are using it to water trees and their gardens,” he said. “I think harvesting rainwater is going to get a lot more popular.”

Wichita Falls is scrambling to build a pipeline from its wastewater plant to its water treatment plant. By early next year, the triple-treated wastewater could add 5 million gallons of water a day, Nix said.

“That will extend the lakes until we get some rain,” he said.

Until then, a parched landscape will be a fact of life in Wichita Falls.

“People don’t like it, but they understand it. A brown lawn is a badge of honor for people who are doing their part. You can tell who waters their lawn and who doesn’t,” Levy said.

Berre wonders what’s next.

“I’m starting to think about what I’m going to do to flush the toilet if we don’t get some rain,” he said.