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Coping With Climate Change: 2 Texas Towns Struggle for Water

March 22, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
The recent drought and record temperatures in Texas put an unprecedented strain on water resources across the state. As part of NewsHour's Coping with Climate Change series, Hari Sreenivasan reports on the plight of two towns in their struggle for water.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And now to our new series called Coping With Climate Change. It examines how communities are dealing with the new realities of a changing climate. And we’re getting help from public media partners in different parts of the country.

As it happens, the United Nations has designated today World Water Day to call attention to the importance of freshwater.

Texas is where we went to see what happens when there isn’t enough of it.

Correspondent Hari Sreenivasan worked with a public media project called StateImpact Texas to identify two towns with very different solutions to the problem.

The project includes KUT Radio in Austin, KUHF in Houston and NPR.

JOHN JACOBS, mayor of Robert Lee, Texas: A year, a year-and-a-half ago, where our pickup were at, water shoreline.

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HARI SREENIVASAN: Everything from there on to here was water?

JOHN JACOBS: Was water, yes.

HARI SREENIVASAN: I’m walking across the dry portion of a reservoir that should be submerged in water. With me is John Jacobs, the proud mayor of Robert Lee, Texas. His family has been on these rugged and windy West Texas plains since the Civil War.

We drove up to a vista overlooking the reservoir that was built after the last mega-drought in the 1950s. What two summers have done to this region became strikingly clear.

So this is E.V. Spence Lake?

JOHN JACOBS: This is E.V. Spence Reservoir, yes.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Or what’s left of it.

JOHN JACOBS: What’s left.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The town of Robert Lee has depended almost entirely on this reservoir for its water. And the record-setting drought has forced it to drink from its last reserves.

Across Texas, towns like Robert Lee experienced record-breaking temperatures last year. Some saw more than 100 days straight of 100-degree temperatures. And that scorching heat began evaporating reservoirs like Lake E.V. Spence.

When did you think this was a real big problem?

JOHN JACOBS: We started getting concerned probably two years ago that it was going to turn into something if — of course, everybody — like everyone else: It’s going to rain.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But it did not rain enough. During last year’s drought, the state only received 11 inches of rain. That’s 16 inches less than normal.

Large bodies of water are measured in what’s known as acre feet. That’s the amount of water it takes to cover an acre of ground in a foot of water. Lake E.V. Spence, when it’s full, has 517,000 acre feet of water. Now it has less than 1,000.

Robert Lee is not alone in feeling the heat. Nearly 1,000 public water systems in Texas restricted water last year. Even now, after some winter rains, 17 systems are projected to run out of water in six months or less. The 2011 drought was the most intense one-year drought in Texas since at least 1895, when statewide weather records began. Losses reached $10 billion in crops, livestock and timber.

Without water, farmers and ranchers like Bartley Murray are scaling back.

BARTLEY MURRAY, rancher: If you don’t have the water to water your crops, and you don’t have ample rainfall to make a crop, there’s no money there. Yes, there is some government subsidies, but it’s not enough.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Already dry grass and brush turned into perfect kindling for the worst wildfire season in Texas history. The fires charred nearly four million acres, and firefighters were forced to use precious water to put those fires out.

MELINDA MCCUTCHEN, editor, Robert Lee Observer: You throw a fire season that burned over 40 percent of our county. I mean we thank God for Texas Forest Service, but every time they came in with one of those helicopters or the big planes, they sucked more of our water out of Lake Spence, until, well, as you saw today, it’s gone.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Melinda McCutchen edits the local paper in Robert Lee and owns a ranch on the edge of town.

So what happens if there is another fire this big?

MELINDA MCCUTCHEN: I have no idea. I don’t. That would be for somebody else to figure out because we don’t have the water to fight another fire season like we had last year.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The 1,100 residents of Robert Lee are trying to save every drop. The town has already cut consumption by 80 percent.

MELINDA MCCUTCHEN: I never take a bath, take a shower, wash a load of clothes that I don’t think, save water. You know, don’t — you don’t leave the water running when you brush your teeth. All those things that maybe people in wetter areas do, we don’t.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Drastic conservation has worked so far, but if the reserves deplete at current levels, this town will run out of water by the end of March, so, in the short term, they are building a lifeline. This is a 12-mile-long trench across West Texas being built at a cost of $1.5 million, using a combination of state and federal funds.

It will enable Robert Lee to buy water from the neighboring town of Bronte. Building the pipeline has been a town-wide effort. Photos taken by local citizens show how volunteers have rolled up their sleeves to help at every step.

BILL HOOD, resident of Robert Lee, Texas: Well, the community of Robert Lee always pulls together and stands together, and we’ll come through it. We will be together.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Texas has been the site of droughts going back hundreds of years. The last really bad one lasted from 1949 to 1957. The question many ask is whether this drought is different.

Texas Tech University’s Katharine Hayhoe thinks the answer is yes. She says droughts are growing in intensity and frequency as the climate changes.

KATHARINE HAYHOE, climate scientist, Texas Tech University: What climate change is doing is, it’s increasing our temperatures. And higher temperatures mean faster evaporation. So you need more water to provide the same amount of irrigation for crops if temperatures are higher.

And that’s what we see happening here in Texas and in many places around the world.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Every five years, Texas drafts a new water plan. The 2012 plan reflects climate scientists’ forecast that drought is expected to increase in general worldwide because of the increase in temperatures. And the report makes recommendations for water conservation and reservoir building projects.

Turning policy into action, however, remains a problem, according to Andrew Sansom, director of the River Systems Institute at Texas State University.

ANDREW SANSOM, director, River Systems Institute, Texas State University: We have up until recently affirmatively denied in state policy that climate change is even a possibility.

That is changing. The current draft of the water plan acknowledges that the climate may be changing. And so I think there is a growing recognition that the drought of the ’50s may not be as bad as it can ultimately get. In terms of preparing for a really serious drought, we are behind the eight ball.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Sansom says a combination of antiquated laws governing water rights and changing demographics are making the water problems worse.

ANDREW SANSOM: We have already given permission for more water to be withdrawn from many of our rivers than is actually in them today, so — so that we’re reaching a crisis that’s brought on by declining water supplies and a rapidly growing population.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Part of that growing population lives here in Spicewood Beach, Texas, a retirement community of 500 homes on the shores of Lake Travis near Austin. Spicewood depend on wells fed by water both from Lake Travis and the aquifer below the town.

You are 50 feet below normal?

MAN: Yes, sir.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And so that that’s line right there?

MAN: That line you see across the lake, you can look at the rocks behind me. You can see the white line. That’s the normal level.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The low levels were caused in part by increasing use. The regional water utility, the Lower Colorado River Authority, or LCRA, had been pumping water from Spicewood’s community well to sell to other places. With little rain to restore the water table, the wells ran dry at the end of January, and Spicewood Beach became the first town in Texas to run out of water.

CATHY MULL, resident of Spicewood, Texas: And we’re still on a limited base — 50 gallons a day is all we are allowed per household. And it’s kind of hard to know where this is going to go and how long this is going to be.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now the residents get their water this way, a 7,000-gallon truck delivering water four times a day. This is expected to continue for months as the utility company looks for long-term solutions.

That’s cold comfort for residents who retired here for a life of leisure and are now watching their life savings go down the drain.

CATHY MULL: You’ve lost your property value now, because this is a major problem with no water. And I feel like now, personally, myself, that nobody is going to want to come in here anymore, live here any longer, because we have issues with our water system.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Strains on the system are beginning to pit upstream communities that live near the reservoirs against downstream farmers competing for the same water. Just this month, for the first time in history, the water utility decided to cut off water supply to rice farmers in Southeastern Texas.

ANDREW SANSOM: Today, the economic engine engendered by recreation and residential growth and tourism up on this lake probably far exceeds the rice industry. And so there is a pitched battle under way as to who should get the water.

Mark Twain said that whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting. And he was prophetic, because that fight is accelerating in Texas today.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And if this spring and summer are a repeat of the last two, and a harbinger of things to come, that fight could get worse.

In times of serious drought, Texas expects to need 130 percent more water over the next 50 years. And the state admits that, if it doesn’t act fast, there will not be enough supply to meet those demands.

JEFFREY BROWN: Hari has been filing stories from Texas all week on our website, where it’s Science Thursday. You can look for our brand new Coping with Climate Change page to find all our climate reports.