Denton water officials had their hands hovering over the spigot last week.
Then, it rained.
When temperatures shot into the 100s in early July, Denton residents opened the faucets to water their stressed lawns, landscapes and gardens. Denton Water Utilities went from pumping about 16 million gallons per day in June to pumping 28 million gallons per day during the first week of July, according to division manager Tim Fisher.
City staff dusted off the drought plan and prepared for weekly watering restrictions for the first time in more than a decade, which was a surprise to some city leaders when they were briefed, Fisher said.
Denton has always had daytime watering restrictions in the summer. But after the city built a second treatment and pumping station, it hasn’t had to call for more watering restrictions since the early 2000s.
Both plants, the older one at Lewisville Lake and the newer one at Ray Roberts Lake, are meant to meet both current and future needs. Between them, Denton has about 50 million gallons per day of pumping capacity. During one of the worst days of the drought in 2011, the two plants pumped the city’s historic peak of 37 mgd, Fisher said.
The wild card for Denton this summer hasn’t been the ebb and flow of the drought. The most recent map with the U.S. Drought Monitor shows nearly all of the state in a moderate to severe drought, with small pockets in the Piney Woods, the Hill Country and the Davis Mountains that are less so. Counties along the Texas coast, the Panhandle and the high plains remain in severe to exceptional drought.
Nor has Denton’s wild card been the lake levels, which have triggered watering restrictions across the state. Denton’s draw on the two lakes accounts for a small fraction of the conservation pools, Fisher said, so the city ties its conservation efforts to those in Dallas, which has not yet called for watering restrictions.
Instead, the wild card for Denton has been the rehab of the older plant. The department planned the project with a staggered, 30-month contract that would stay ahead of the city’s growth and make it through the summer with a partial pumping capacity, Fisher said.
Between the two plants, they planned for 38-42 mgd capacity during construction.
Work was going well until they got to the older part of the plant and discovered problems they didn’t expect several months ago. Changes set the work plan back about six months, especially as they focused more on pumping capacity for the summer, Fisher said.
Instead of 75 percent pumping capacity at the older plant, the city will have about 50 percent capacity, or a total of about 35-38 mgd, through the rest of the summer.
In other words, mandatory watering restrictions remain possible, and could come in mid- to late August, Fisher said.
Climatologists with the National Weather Service this week released new long-term probabilities and noted that the region has an equal chance of normal levels of precipitation from August through October.
But, in the near term, rain chances diminish after this weekend, and the National Weather Service in Fort Worth called for daytime highs to return to the century mark next week as soils dry out from last week’s rains.
Because the city has had the additional pumping capacity and hasn’t ordered mandatory restrictions for more than a decade, Denton residents may not feel the presence of the historic drought the way other communities have, Fisher said.
“It’s true that droughts and system failures drive awareness of the need for conservation,” Fisher said.
Still, conservation is becoming an increasingly important and economic strategy for meeting the state’s water needs.
This fall, the Texas Legislature will ask voters to authorize $2 billion from the state’s “rainy day” fund to help pay for new water projects.
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.