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West Texas Water Woes Run Deep, Despite Rain

Despite the recent deluge, the drought in West Texas is not over, and experts say the perennially dry region must plan carefully for the future. Pressure is also growing on the Legislature to address the problem next year.

Once finished, this pipeline will be able to supply supplementary water from the Hickory Aquifer for San Angelo in 2013.

SAN ANGELO — With its pretty rivers and lakes, this city of 95,000 people is sometimes called the oasis of West Texas. But San Angelo recently came within a year of running out of water, as it faced a severe drought that produced brown lawns, dying bushes — and fear.

“Who wants to pull up to a hotel and it’s dead?” said Bob Banskter, general manager of the Rodeway Inn in San Angelo, alluding to landscaping. It was late September, a day after City Council members had voted to ban the use of outdoor sprinklers, and as he walked around the hotel, Banskter pointed out shrubbery that would die without watering.

What a difference a few days makes. Last weekend, the heavens opened, and it poured. More than five inches of rain fell on San Angelo. Drought-stricken Midland, an oil boomtown more than 100 miles to the northwest, got more rain on Sept. 28 than on any other day since 1968. A severely low reservoir that supplies both cities with water more than doubled its reserves. On Friday, San Angelo’s city council voted to undo the sprinkler ban.

But the drought in West Texas is not over, and experts say the perennially dry region must plan carefully. The two-year drought, the region’s worst in more than half a century, has starkly exposed its vulnerability. Farmers, swimming pool cleaners, car-wash operators and many others depend on ample water, and if supplies are short, jobs could be lost. Pressure is growing on the Legislature to address the problem when it meets next year, especially because the population continues to grow and West Texas is projected to become drier.

“What happens now is we have the attention of the public and the elected officials,” said Ken Rainwater, the director of the Water Resources Center at Texas Tech University.

Texans need to learn to value water properly, Rainwater said, and that may mean building new water-supply projects and easing up on lawns in West Texas, which at best receives half the  rainfall of East Texas.

Before the rains, the situation had been dire. O.H. Ivie, the main remaining reservoir supplying Midland, Odessa, San Angelo and other towns in the Permian Basin of West Texas, had been projected to run out of water as early as next summer, which would have forced cities in the area to rely on newly-tapped supplies or truck in water. But with the rain, it swelled from 12 percent to 26 percent full in just four days. E.V. Spence, another reservoir that has been essentially empty for months but sends water, when available, to the Midland-Odessa area, also revived slightly. John Grant, the general manager of the Colorado River Municipal Water District, which operates both reservoirs, said the rains brought Permian Basin cities more than a year of water.

“We’re pretty excited,” he said. “But we’re not out of the drought.”

Some 66 percent of the state remains in drought, a major improvement from a week ago. Nonetheless, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality still says 23 communities, many of them in West Texas, could be within 180 days of running out of water.

Meteorologists say that El Niño, a Pacific Ocean current pattern, could appear this fall for the first time in more than two years. Normally that brings above-average rainfall and cooler temperatures to Texas, especially the southern end of the state.

However, “it’s looking like a disappointing El Niño,” said John Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist, who is based at Texas A&M University. He says the state has a 40 percent chance of above-normal rainfall this fall and winter but a 25 percent chance of it falling below normal. Texas remains in the grip of a long-term drought that could still last for several years, he said.

This drought has forced local officials in West Texas to make agonizing decisions. At San Angelo’s City Council meeting on Sept. 27, before all the rain, officials voted to continue to allow car washes to operate and swimming pools to be filled despite the looming shortages.

“We’re dealing with people’s jobs,” said Paul Alexander, a councilman, amid a debate about when to enact tighter restrictions. Another council member, Charlotte Farmer, argued that the city should not cut off water for fountains at the San Angelo visitors center and an internationally known water lily display.

“We’re experiencing a drought, but I don’t want to experience people stopping to come to San Angelo,” Farmer said. (The Council voted to maintain water for those purposes, as she had urged.)

Throughout West Texas, a consensus has emerged that cities need new water sources to prepare for a dry future. Traditionally, West Texas cities have relied heavily on huge surface reservoirs, many built in the wake of earlier droughts. But the hot, dry air generally means that more water evaporates from the reservoirs in a given year than people use.

“Our biggest enemy is actually evaporation,” said Mayor Alvin New of San Angelo.

The city is building a $120 million pipeline project southeast of town that will tap an aquifer called the Hickory. It should be operational next summer, officials say, and will initially be able to carry two-thirds of the city’s basic wintertime needs, with deliveries increasing over time. The catch is that the aquifer water contains higher levels of radium than federal standards allow, so it must be diluted with reservoir water until a treatment plant can be built.

Another major new West Texas pipeline, costing $135 million and running 42 miles from the Odessa area to water well-fields to the west, is also moving along. Next week workers should finish laying the main pipeline, according to Mr. Grant of the Colorado River Municipal Water District, which is overseeing the project. The water should be available in December, he said.

Some cities close to salty aquifers are looking toward desalination; Odessa is aggressively pursuing this, although it is expensive. The concept of water reuse is also catching on quickly in West Texas, including the prospect of turning human sewage into drinking water. A $12 million water reuse plant is scheduled to begin operating in February in Big Spring, pumping well-scrubbed sewage into the drinking-water systems of Midland, Odessa and Big Spring.

Brownwood, about 130 miles southwest of Fort Worth, is also beginning to pursue a similar reuse plant, with help from a state grant. And San Angelo is in the early stages of contemplating such a plant, according to Will Wilde, the city’s water utilities director.

All of these options are expensive, and water rates around the region have soared. But if the state is to solve its long-term water woes, the costs will be high. The state water plan, finalized in January, contains a $53 billion wish list of projects to meet the needs of the growing state.

Next year Texas lawmakers will decide whether to support financing for the plan, and they could also consider a range of water-infrastructure and conservation questions. House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, told a cattle raisers’ group last month in Austin that water will be a key part of his agenda.

“I don’t want to reach a day where a Texas company announces it’s moving to Florida or Ohio because of water issues,” Straus said.

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