Texas Towns Find Fast Solutions to Water Problems

Imperiled towns around Texas are finding short-term solutions to water supply problems brought on by the drought, some just in time to avert a crisis.

In a tranquil state park in Central Texas, workers are busily piecing together massive yellow pipes that spell salvation for this city. The pipes run along a park road, slither between trees, cross a street to avoid an ancient cemetery, hug a state-owned easement and then land at a treatment plant.

Without it, what everyone fears most would come true: The water will stop running.

This $250,000 pipeline project will bring water from a rock quarry seven miles away to Groesbeck by Dec. 6 — the date that state officials monitoring the drought said the town would run out of water, finally sucked dry by Texas' historic drought. But it is only a six-month supply. That's enough time, Mayor Jackie Livingston hopes, to find a permanent solution.

"We will do anything, anything short of hauling water," Livingston said.

Imperiled towns around Texas are finding short-term solutions to water supply problems brought on by the drought, some just in time to avert a crisis. But finding a permanent solution is tricky, and in many cases, expensive. That makes the plight of finding water doubly difficult: Even if they could find a fix, they also have to find the cash to pay for it.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality says there are 11 towns with enough water to last six month or less. It is working to find quick fixes that cost tens of thousands — sometimes millions — of dollars for a few months of water. They hope that is long enough to find and complete longer-term projects, many of which these cash-strapped communities had delayed for years.

For the West Texas town of Robert Lee, there is a $1.55 million price tag to tap into the nearby town's water supply with a pipeline. A neighborhood near the Louisiana border will pay $50,000 to drop a pump off a bridge into a deeper part of a lake.

An Austin-area community has paid about $10,000 to build a temporary barge to float a pipe over a water-filled hole that saved the town from hauling water, at least for now, said Pat Mulligan, president and manager of the Windermere Oaks Water Supply Company. But if the lake that supplies the area drops another six feet, they will have to haul in water by truck. Then, water bills will increase about 300 percent and residents in the 230-home subdivision could pay $300 a month for water — up from about $120.

Mulligan hopes the hole will supply water for a year.

"We're at the mercy of the gods," he said.

The state is treating the drought much as it would a hurricane, said Linda Brookins, director of the TCEQ water supply division. Officials contact towns every week. They hold urgent meetings. Experts walk rivers and reservoirs. Others help with grant and loan applications. Many are surprised to learn many state grants are only available for permanent solutions, and so are forced to take separate loans to fund temporary projects.

"The last thing we want is to see people run out of water," Brookins said.

In Groesbeck, water troubles began this summer. Fort Parker Lake, once a grand reservoir, has been relegated to a series of mud banks and puddles.

It happened quickly: During a 90-day stretch of little rain and triple-degree heat, the town used 54 million gallons of water. Some 271 million gallons — an 18-month supply — evaporated.

"Sucked it out of the rivers and lakes," Livingston sighs.

The day the lake got to a crisis point, alarming officials that it could actually go dry, the pitter-patter of rain interrupted a City Council meeting — just as state officials granted permission to lay pipe through the park. The pipeline company needed four days, and the work will be done just before Dec. 6.

The rain bought a few more days — and a weight lifted from Livingston's shoulders.

But only temporarily.

Over the next six months, an engineering firm being paid another $98,000 will investigate the possibility of finding groundwater. Livingston is wary because the lower river is spring-fed and she fears tapping the aquifer will further harm the waterway and cause it to dry up, too.

And so she prays.

As does Robert Lee's water superintendent Eddie Ray Roberts. The $1.55 million pipeline he's building to get water from the nearby town doesn't include the cost of actually purchasing the water. So the town has to find a cheaper alternative. Roberts' solution?

"Prayer," he says laughing.

He believes groundwater may be the town's best option. But drilling wells could cost another $250,000, and it's not a sure bet.

"If we go ahead and start drilling ... and six months from now we have not found a well, we're out of water," he explained.

In Pendleton, a neighborhood along the Texas-Louisiana border, residents were surprised to find the intake pipe that draws water from the Sabine River was exposed, unable to suck in water for distribution to the community.

Jerry Clark, general manager of the Sabine River Authority of Texas, said the subdivision has permission to drop a pump from a bridge into deeper waters. Then they may put the pipe on a barge to get it to the deepest point possible, where the pipe will be protected from the slowly vanishing lake. The cost: $50,000.

"This is the most immediate thing that could be done," he said.

Groesbeck's mayor knows her pipeline is only a six-month solution. Now, she is considering buying the rock quarry and channeling water into a reservoir. Or she could drill wells. All she needs is money.

"When we find there's really water to drill a well for, we'll find the money," Livingston says.

Even that is just a hope.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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