TOPICS > Science

Two Texas Towns Run Out of Water

BY Saskia de Melker  March 20, 2012 at 5:44 PM EST

Mayor John Jacobs of Robert Lee, Texas; NewsHour photo by Saskia de Melker

ROBERT LEE, Texas | All the cars in this town are dirty. Gripped by drought, the lake that has provided the town’s only source of water has just about dried up — as of last month, it was less than 1 percent full. And as a result, residents are prohibited from using water to wash cars, water trees and lawns and irrigate plants.

Of course, dirty cars are the least of their concern. It’s become a question of survival. Texans in this semi-arid region are accustomed to making do with little water, but the sense of urgency has never been so high, said Melinda McCutchen, who edits the local newspaper. Since October, Robert Lee residents have cut water consumption by 80 percent.

“I never take a bath, take a shower, wash a load of clothes, that I don’t think, save water.” McCutchen said.

The town is now racing to finish construction on a 12-mile emergency pipeline to pull water from the neighboring town of Bronte before they run out completely.

Robert Lee isn’t alone. To conserve what little water is left, the state of Texas restricted water use in 1,000 cities and towns last year. Of those, 17 are considered critical — in danger of running out of water in six months or less.

Topping that list is the town of Spicewood Beach, a community of 500 homes on the shores of Lake Travis near Austin. Spicewood relies on wells fed by water from both the lake and the aquifer below the town. Too much water use and too little rainfall last year caused the water table to sink to historic lows. This January, Spicewood Beach became the first Texas town to run out of water.

Now, a 7,000-gallon water truck arrives in Spicewood Beach each day to supply the homes.

“We’re still on a limited basis, 50 gallons a day is all we’re allowed per household,” said longtime resident Cathy Mull. “It’s kind of hard to know where this is going to go and how long this is going to be.” The regional water utility, the Lower Colorado River Authority, expects to continue to truck in water for months while they look for a long-term solution.

Robert Lee and Spicewood are stark examples of the tenuous state of the Texas water supply as the state continues to grapple with the impacts of the state’s worst one-year drought ever recorded.

Drought is not unusual in Texas, said climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University. For example, the last drought of record in Texas occurred in the 1950s. But the severity of last year’s high temperatures compounded with the lack of rainfall and a growing population have put an unprecedented strain on water resources.

Across Texas, towns experienced record low rainfall but also record high temperatures last year. Some towns, including Robert Lee, experienced more than 100 days of 100-degree temperatures. Those conditions are likely to become increasingly normal for the region, Hayhoe said, and that could make already severe droughts even worse.

“What climate change is doing is it’s increasing our temperatures, and higher temperatures mean faster evaporation,” she says, “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.”

Population is also a factor. Texas is one of the most rapidly urbanizing states in the country. The population is expected to grow 82 percent by 2060. All those people need water. In the recently released state water plan, it’s estimated that water use will swell from 18 million to 22 million acre-feet per year — and that’s not taking drought into account. An acre-foot is the amount of water covering 1 acre of land to a depth of 1 foot — enough to flood a football field.

The state plan makes recommendations for water conservation and reservoir building to increase water supply and maximize existing supply. Water planners are also looking to unconventional sources of water including desalination and rainwater harvesting to help close the gap between supply and demand. But implementing the plan will be costly — an estimated $53 billion. And another extreme drought could steal an additional 3.6 million acre-feet of water per year.

“We have already given permission for more water to be withdrawn from many of our rivers than is actually in them today,” said Andrew Sansom, director of the River Systems Institute at Texas State University.

Sansom fears that severe water shortages like those in Robert Lee and Spicewood could result in conflict. Strains on the system are already beginning to pit upstream communities like Spicewood near reservoirs against downstream farmers competing for the same water. Just this month, for the first time in history, the Lower Colorado River Authority decided to cut off water supply to rice farmers in Southeastern Texas.

“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,” says Sansom.

The NewsHour will air this report on the water situation in Robert Lee and Spicewood on Friday’s broadcast. For more reporting on Texas water, go to NewsHour’s new Coping with Climate Change page and State Impact Texas ,a project of of KUT austin, KUHF Houston and NPR.

Do you think about where your water comes from? What concerns do you have about how your water source will cope with a changing climate? Share your stories and insights here.

Interactive graphic by Justin Myers