These days, residents of Wichita Falls aren’t just witnessing the effects of drought — some say they can actually taste it. As local reservoirs dip to about 30 percent of their capacity, water quality has degraded with a rising concentration of dissolved solids.
Now city officials are poised to tighten existing water use regulations even further as they await a water reuse system they say could reduce demand for lake water by about a third.
On Saturday, the city will enter an unprecedented stage 4 of emergency drought response, which includes a total ban on outdoor watering and an internal audit of water consumption by local businesses. Under the current level, stage 3, residents may water their lawns just once per week.
“It’s a vital resource now,” said Barry Levy, the city’s public information officer. The lakes’ combined capacity has dropped by 25 percent since February.
City officials say the emergency drought response has helped alleviate stress on two of the city’s dwindling reservoirs, Lakes Kickapoo and Arrowhead. Residents have cut back water use by about 45 percent since mandatory conservation measures went into effect, said Daniel Nix, operations manager for Wichita Falls public utilities.
“I’m going into stage 4 optimistic that it will be just as successful, if not more, given the knowledge that the citizens are doing what it takes,” Nix said, adding that he expects to see the greatest water savings from the outdoor watering ban.
The city’s strict enforcement of the regulations has helped make conservation a reality. Residents can call a hotline to report neighbors who circumvent the water use restrictions. A 24/7 water patrol seeks out rogue lawn irrigators, and the city has issued 2,360 tickets for water violations so far this year, according to the Wichita Falls public information office. Those who exceed 7,480 gallons of water use per month — the average monthly residential water consumption in Wichita Falls — face an additional surcharge.
Tighter restrictions may be on the horizon if the drought continues. Nix said the water resources subcommittee is having preliminary discussions about whether to create stage 5 water restrictions.
City officials say they have been mindful not to let the restrictions unnecessarily burden the local economy. Kevin Pearson, executive vice president of economic development for the Wichita Falls chamber of commerce, said the city has taken proactive steps to reach out to businesses that could be affected by the emergency drought response. “The last thing we want to see is the loss of one of our major manufacturers due to water,” he said.
But some local businesses have nonetheless suffered under the restrictions, particularly landscapers and car washes. Donnie Long says his business, Longo Landscape, is down 60 percent this year. “All the landscapers are suffering a world of hurt,” he said.
Customers have changed preferences in the face of drought restrictions, and Long said he’s noticed growing interest in xeriscaping — landscaping that reduces the need for irrigation with drought-resistant plants. “Now everyone’s going to have to get into the mindset that water-loving plants are going to be no longer,” he said.
Some residents say they have noticed changes to their drinking water as well. “We have seen the water quality of the lakes degrade through the drought,” Nix said. “The citizens are definitely drinking water at a quality they’re not used to drinking.” Total dissolved solids in the water, which are not considered a health risk, have risen from about 250 parts per million (ppm) to 1,000 ppm. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends that drinking water contain no more than 1,000 ppm of total dissolved solids, for primarily aesthetic and cosmetic reasons.
“The lowering of the water through evaporation has concentrated all of those salts,” Nix said.
Meanwhile, the city has big hopes for an upcoming water reuse system, which officials say could come online as early as March of next year. Nix says the system will recycle and treat wastewater to alleviate stress on the water supply. He estimates the system will add 5 million gallons of water per day — about one-third of the amount drawn from Lakes Kickapoo and Arrowhead each day — and will help dilute the concentration of dissolved solids in the water.
But conservation by residents and businesses will continue to play a key role in protecting Wichita Falls’ water supply, Nix said.
“So far, they’ve been doing an outstanding job,” he said.