WaterWest Texas towns face impending water shortage

Published 2 May 2011

West Texas is facing a dire drought that has local officials scrambling to find additional sources of water for thirsty residents; since last October, West Texas has only seen about one-tenth of an inch of rain, and now two of the three reservoirs that cities in the Permian Basin depend upon are nearly empty; the third reservoir is 30 percent below capacity; without significant rain soon, all three reservoirs will be dry by January 2013; residents have been restricted to only three days of outdoor watering; the region faces limited options for additional sources of water and plans will be expensive to implement

West Texas is facing a dire drought that has local officials scrambling to find additional sources of water for thirsty residents.

Since last October, West Texas has only seen about one-tenth of an inch of rain, and now two of the three reservoirs that cities in the Permian Basin depend upon are nearly empty. The third reservoir is 30 percent below capacity.

For the first time, Midland, Texas residents were told that they could not water their lawns and schools were instructed to water their football fields less – a tall order for a community where football is more than just a game.

In addition, the long drought has left vegetation dry and brittle across Texas resulting in massive wildfires all over the state.

John Grant, the general manager for the Colorado River Municipal Water District, which supplies water to Midland, Odessa, and other nearby cities, says that without significant rain soon, all three reservoirs will be dry by January 2013.

Recent water restrictions are an anomaly for most of Midland’s 110,000 residents, who live in a semiarid part of the United States that is so dusty that people often need to hose down the sidewalks.

Stuart Purvis, the utilities manager for Midland, said, “People in Midland want a certain quality in their life. They don’t want to live in Midland, work in the oil fields and have no greenery.”

To help curtail water consumption by 10 percent, local officials have limited the use of outdoor watering to three days a week.

Odessa has also ordered residents to limit their water consumption and imposed fines on those who do not comply. Midland has not imposed penalties, because as Mayor Wes Perry explains Midlanders do not respond well to orders.

Perry said, “We don’t respond really well to, ‘O.K., the government says you’ve got to do this, and by God you’re going to do it or we’re going to string you up.’”

According to Perry the city has hit its goal of reducing consumption by 10 percent, but Grant, the city’s water manager, said water usage in March was the highest for that month in five years.

The region faces limited options for additional sources of water and plans will be expensive to implement.

The region’s groundwater supply contains high amounts of fluorides, arsenic, and chloride and tapping into the underground supply would require building a desalination plant that could cost tens of millions of dollars.

Currently most residents avoid drinking tap water as the water it currently receives from the lake has large amounts of chloride which is harmless but tastes odd.

Cities seeking to use more groundwater supplies will also face competition from oil and gas companies who use massive amounts of water for a natural gas drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing. Furthermore in certain areas old oil wells have contaminated groundwater supplies.

Another option for Midland is to develop T-Bar Ranch, a groundwater well field the city owns, but doing so would cost an estimated $140 million and take at least five years.

Other sources for water include a planned sewage treatment in Big Spring – which would only send a small amount of thrice-treated waste water back to Midlands – and a businessman’s personal water supply from his ranch located ninety miles away in Fort Stockton.

The Fort Stockton plan already faces an uncertain future as thirsty residents there want to keep the water rather than send it away.

When asked why Midland has so few options and is not better prepared for the impending water shortage and, Mayor Perry responded, “No one anticipated that we would be in this kind of a drought.”

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