Water, Water … Nowhere? Texas is Nearing Critical Conditions For Water, But Will We Reach California-Level Drought?

Dried up river

The latest issue of Governing magazine has a story that all Texans should read, and then read again. The story’s title is self-explanatory — “Drought-Plagued Regions Struggle to Conserve Water and Make Money” — an issue with which much of North and West Texas are intimately familiar.

The story uses Midland as a case study, following the economic boom of shale gas and oil exploration and how increased demand on the region’s water supplies has led city officials to take up new tactics to ensure the town’s future. Between unprecedented utility rate hikes, thoughtful upgrades to infrastructure, and land purchases to pipe in underground reserves, Midland has ensured that the city has a 50-year supply of water.

And even though we’ve had a relatively mild summer in North Texas with several inches of rain that has added to our reservoirs, we’re still in desperate shape. Some North Texas communities have put locks on fire hydrants to discourage water theft, and some rivers and lakes are so parched that you’d have to walk almost a mile before you reach water. It might not be too long before we’re running out of water like towns in West Texas, some of which are struggling to provide basic drinking water service to residents.

And yet, we are still growing. The demand for water is still growing, too, as we drill wells to water our lawns and fill our pools. In California, though, the call is much different. A San Francisco ad campaign is asking city residents to have a quickie in the shower — to limit their time bathing to practically hosing off. But still, as this blog from SF Gate columnist Mark Morford points out, the Bay Area uses far less water than Sacramento, and agricultural areas (think: dairies and vineyards and organic farms) use even more.

At our home in East Dallas, we are transitioning from your typical 1950s St. Augustine lawn to a mix of native Texas flowers and grasses, paired with decomposed granite and stone. Our vegetable garden is watered with soaker hoses, which minimizes water loss. We hope that, over time, we can cut our water bill down to just a few bucks. We’re a rarity in our neighborhood of 1950s homes, most of which have grassy front lawns that host the chorus of mowers every weekend morning — our suburban-style alarm clock. Some of them have sprinkler systems that run, rain or shine, that may or may not be in working condition, and some have geysers that are more routine than old faithful, thanks to broken sprinkler heads.

And just a short jaunt away in Mesquite, city officials have curbed outdoor watering to once every two weeks, whereas in Dallas you can still water your lawn twice a week. Perhaps soon Mesquite, that water conservation pioneer of a city, will be asking its residents to have a quickie in the shower, too. Still, there’s no sign that the watering habits of Dallas-area homeowners will change at all.

City officials in Midland, on the other hand, are taking matters into their own hands, according to Tom Arrandale’s piece in Governing:

Farm towns and ranching counties are bracing to fend off wealthier big-city designs on their water. Tensions are reminiscent of the Los Angeles water grab a century ago that dried up agriculture in the undeveloped Owens Valley in California’s Sierra Nevada.

West of the Pecos River, Texas ranchers already are in a legal showdown with a prominent Midland oilman. Clayton W. Williams Jr. wants to sell Midland 41 million gallons a day from his family’s ranch near Fort Stockton, population 8,283 and falling. The Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District, based in Fort Stockton, voted unanimously to deny Williams a pumping permit. Williams, who runs his own oil and gas company from Midland, has taken his Fort Stockton neighbors to court. Engineers, geologists and lawyers for private ventures keep showing up to scout Pecos County for available water. “There are water marketers, there are water interests and there are water pirates,” Paul Weatherby, the Middle Pecos district manager, says. “We’re in the Chihuahuan Desert, and we don’t have anywhere to go should we run out of water ourselves.”

With drought settling in, the allure of more water led Midland to cut some corners. To finance a Fort Stockton pipeline, project backers rigged an election to create a new state-sanctioned utility — the Midland County Freshwater Supply District No. 1. In Texas, residents normally can vote to set up freshwater districts to supply a rural county, subdivision or other sparsely populated region. Midland’s proposal drew the boundaries to encompass just one 20-acre tract close to the Midland airport. The son of a Williams executive moved onto the property to live in a modular home, qualifying as the district’s sole eligible voter. Casting the only vote, he singlehandedly adopted 2010 ballot measures that established a new water district and gave it $375 million in revenue bond authority.

2 Comment

  • mm

    Applause, Jo, great post. I am so impressed with Randy Bacon’s buffalo grass and gravel courtyard in our Monday Morning Millionaire, we need to really re-think our landscaping!

    • mm

      I seriously think that we are living in La-La Land when it comes to how critical our water needs have become! It’s serious stuff!