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As drought returns, experts say Texas cities aren't conserving enough water

By Paul Cobler

In the early months of 2015, driving around Wichita Falls was a depressing experience for resident Larry Ayres, filled with dust and wilting plants. The nights were even worse; he was sleepless with worry about what the city running out of water could mean for his family and his local chain of car washes.

Wichita Falls' corner of North Texas was enduring one of the worst droughts in its history at the time, leaving the reservoirs that supply water to the city barely treading above 20 percent full. If the combined levels of the reservoirs, lakes Arrowhead, Kemp and Kickapoo, had dipped below that mark, the city would have been forced to shut off all public water.

“It was unthinkable,” said Ayres, owner of four All American Car Washes in Wichita Falls. “I don't think anyone even tried to predict what would happen if the lakes reached that point, but there’s no telling what could have happened if we had run out.”

To stave off a city-wide water shutoff, Wichita Falls residents were doing everything they could to conserve water. Mandatory restrictions limited nearly all types of public water use, changing daily life for residents.

Now, as almost 50 percent of Texas deals with a drought still threatening to spread, water experts are recommending cities implement more comprehensive, permanent water restrictions — like the ones Wichita Falls used three years ago — to avoid the growing pains that emergency drought restrictions can bring. A new study by the Texas Living Waters Project, a coalition of several environmental groups, recommends Texas cities limit outdoor watering for residences and businesses to no more than twice per week.

Ayres knows this better than most, as the weight of city-wide emergency drought restrictions were hitting All American Car Wash particularly hard.

Ayres was forced to close his businesses two times a week during the drought’s peak and city officials were threatening all car washes in the city with being completely shut down for the duration of the disaster. This put in jeopardy the jobs of the more than 75 people Ayres said he employed in 2015 at the assembly line-style washes that nearly constantly douse dirty cars with water.

On a recent afternoon, dozens of employees worked outside the chain's headquarters, hand-drying cars and operating the car wash.

“It was doom and gloom for me and upper management who were having to think about it every day,” Ayres said. “It’s impossible for most people to just pick up and leave. I didn’t have a stockpile of money, so it was going to be a bad situation for me and everybody else who worked for me.”

Residents faced a host of other restrictions, including a prohibition on watering their lawns and filling pools with city water, and fines for households exceeding monthly water use limits. The city also underwent a massive campaign to educate residents on water conservation, said Mayor Stephen Santellana, who was then a city council member.

Wichita Falls entered a period of record drought in 2010, and other parts of the state were soon in similar straits — 2011 was the driest year in Texas history. But while conditions improved in much of the state, the drought in Wichita Falls lingered until 2015.

Since then, the city has implemented a slew of permanent water restrictions, and the state has loaned millions of dollars to local governments to update water infrastructure. But water experts say Wichita Falls and other Texas cities can do more to prepare for a future with larger populations and less access to water. 

The recent study by the National Wildlife Federation, the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Galveston Bay Foundation found that Texas cities could save up to 460,000 acre feet of water per year by following certain conservation measures, including twice-per-week watering restrictions. That's 11 percent of the water the cities are projected to use in 2020.

“Everybody thinks they’re using what they need, but folks don't actually know what they need and aren’t using what is appropriate,” said Jennifer Walker, senior program manager for water programs at the National Wildlife Federation. “Many folks are overusing water even though they aren’t doing it maliciously.”

Texas is home to four of the five fastest-growing cities country and is expected to double in size by 2050, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. To limit the water use that comes with its rapidly growing population, the State Water Plan says up to 30 percent of Texas' future water needs can be met through conservation, according to Elizabeth Fazio, who worked on the plan during her time as clerk of the Texas House of Representatives’ Natural Resources Committee.

The study calls for a statewide education campaign teaching Texans the best water conservation practices.

Also cited in the study are the six Texas cities that already limit residents to two days a week of outdoor watering: Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Frisco, Lubbock and the Woodlands.

Wichita Falls currently allows residents to water their lawns on as many days as they like, but only from 7 p.m. to 10 a.m.

Russell Schreiber, Wichita Falls’ director of public works, said restrictions like those recommended in the study would cause water rates to balloon as the utility worked to offset reduced usage of the water being sold.

“If you restrict people’s use of the water, you also have to increase your rates,” Schreiber said. “It’s a balancing act.”

City officials also cite the well-above average reservoir levels, which hovering around 90 percent capacity compared to the average capacity of 66 percent, as for why additional permanent restrictions are unnecessary. 

“As the lake levels fall, then we’ll start putting restrictions in,” said Santellana, the mayor. “There’s a lot that goes into this, like being able to water your grass and take pride in your property.”

Santellana also said water use in the city has been below average since the drought.

But two hours southeast of Wichita Falls in Frisco, the city limits residents of one day per week of watering, and officials have found their program to be a success.

“Frisco, as well as a lot of area here in North Texas, is becoming the place to be, and showing people how much water they actually need to achieve the look they want (for their yards) has been important,” said Sean Aucoin, water education coordinator for the city.

Aucoin said he recommends similar restrictions for the surrounding communities in North Texas. He said watering restrictions have not caused water rates to go up, though rates have increased to pay for a new reservoir and water treatment facility.

“Water is a very precious resource, and nothing in this world can survive without it,” Aucoin said. “It’s not if but when we go back into drought. We want to change that mindset of residents and show them what will thrive here and change that habit now in preparation of the future when that next drought occurs.”

The fact that Texas cities can go from historic droughts to a deluge of rain in an instant highlights the need for stricter conservation efforts, Walker said.

“If we can get used to being efficient and conservative with our water use, it will help in the future because our water will go further," she said.

Wichita Falls lies just outside an area where extreme drought has gripped the Texas Panhandle and surrounding areas this year, leaving the city in no present danger of running out of water again. Still, like large swaths of the state, most of Wichita Falls is in a moderate drought or is considered abnormally dry.

Regardless of what restrictions are in place in Wichita Falls, Ayres, the car wash owner, said he doesn’t think his community will ever forget how desperately close the city came to disaster. 

When the rain finally did return, completely pushing Wichita Falls out of the drought in less than a month, Ayres said it felt like divine intervention.

Residents were outside “jumping for joy” in the rain that filled reservoir levels to the point of overflow and soaked the blue “Pray for Rain” signs planted in the dead yards of homes across the city. 

"If we had gone into summer without that rain, we would have run out of water without a doubt," Ayres said. "That rain really saved us. We have to make sure it never gets that close again." 

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune

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