The ground is so parched it cracks and pops as Toby Watts maneuvers a mud-encrusted, 2-ton water-drilling rig across a scraggly field of rock and grass along FM1187 in western Tarrant County.
A 38-foot derrick slowly rises from the rig’s platform and begins pounding the earth.
Watts, a third-generation water driller, has re-enacted this ritual since he was a child riding in the cab of his father’s pickup across the hills of Aledo near Benbrook.
His grandfather meandered across the same prairie with a “witching stick,” a forked tree branch in the shape of a wishbone, to locate water like magic in artesian springs bubbling below the surface.
The underground aquifer supply is not as predictable in today’s wicked drought.
To find water these days, Watts has to drill almost twice as deep as he did 20 years ago. As Texas’ most intense drought drags on and large housing developments gobble up the countryside, the search for water pits not only homeowner against nature but neighbor against neighbor as they vie for the dwindling water reservoirs underneath them.
In some upscale developments sprouting on former prairie land, homeowners complain that their wells don’t even have enough pressure to allow them to take a shower.
Hours of pounding go by and the ground splits open, spitting fine grains of dirt into the cloudless morning sky. Climbing off his perch at the rig’s control panel, the 47-year-old, 6-foot-5-inch former defensive tackle peels gloves from his hands and crouches to the ground.
He scoops up a wad of mud and massages it through his callused fingers. The mud’s green and pink tint proves his drill pipe has penetrated shale about 400 feet below the surface.
Watts pulls a lever and the drilling grinds to a halt. He removes his earplugs. Anticipation builds.
“We’ve got water,” Watts shouts from under his orange hard hat.
The roar of gushing water drowns out his voice.
Stepping away from the scene, he removes his hard hat. But he doesn’t conceal his excitement.
“It never gets old,” explains Watts, his boots and overalls splattered with gray sludge. “Each time it’s like bringing a new life into the world.”
As he checks gauges and winds up another day of work, Watts is torn between an age-old trade that has for decades furnished his family a comfortable living and one that now threatens the very life of the aquifer as more and more holes are punched deeper into the ground.
“We can only dig so far,” he frets. “There are just so many straws we can put in the ground before it all dries up.”
Extravagance in drought
The landscape transforms from the color of toast to spring-like emerald as Watts navigates his white pickup across the curved streets and rolling hills of an upscale, unincorporated community west of Fort Worth known as Bella Flora, Italian for “beautiful flowers.”
Water droplets dance in the sunlight and splash in an ornate tiered fountain flanked by large magnolia trees greeting newcomers to the development. Sprinklers spray streams of water across carpets of green St. Augustine grass. The gated community is just one of hundreds of developments spreading across the pastureland surrounding the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Watts waves at Bella Flora’s homeowners tending to their gardens or walking their dogs. He knows many of them by name.
He has come to their rescue in the late night hours and on weekends when their pumps broke down. He has drilled new wells when their old ones stopped producing enough water to fill their pools or keep their lawns green.
And he has patiently listened to their panic-stricken voices over rumors that the county may restrict the number of times residents can tap into the aquifer in Bella Flora and other unincorporated communities. Recent restrictions on lawn watering are making homeowners even more panicked and they are wanting to drill more wells.
Winter months are usually dormant times for many water-well drillers. But not the last two years. Watts’ cellphone rings nonstop, as do the cellphones of water drillers all across Texas. Drilling rigs dot the drought-stricken countryside, desperately searching for water.
The aquifer supplying most of the water to this fast-growing area just west of Fort Worth is known as the Paluxy. Geographically, it comprises the upper layer of the Trinity Aquifer from the Red River south to the Texas Hill Country. It is one of nine major and 21 minor aquifers that supply about 60 percent of the state’s water supply.
The water table in all the aquifers is declining at alarming rates. But in the Paluxy, where water flows slowly through honeycomb formations of limestone, sand and silt, it has fallen about 100 feet since Toby Watts’ grandfather Frank Watts first opened Watts Drilling Co. in 1945.
The Texas Water Development Board estimates that up to 1.5 million water wells have been drilled into these aquifers since 1900; about 500,000 of these wells have been abandoned.
But over the last 20 years, as the drought has intensified across Texas, the number of wells being dug has tripled. Today, drillers say water is being pumped out of the aquifer faster than it can recharge.
“People are scared what the drought is going to do,” Watts says. “And they’re going to do what it takes to get water.”
Jeff Bennett, another water driller who has dug water wells in Parker, Hood and Tarrant counties for more than 30 years, worries that the “do whatever it takes” attitude to securing water at any cost today could leave future generations high and dry.
“There is an overall culture of rampant water use in the name of extravagance during a time of drought,” he says.
Along Bella Flora Drive, bulldozers spew black exhaust while carving out sites for new housing. In some empty lots, water wells are dug months before the houses are built. Some lots have two or three wells, and some homeowners have installed water storage tanks in case their wells can’t pump enough water to satisfy their desires.
Doctors, business owners, homebuilders and oilmen who occupy the spacious homes sprouting across the prairie are digging water wells each costing from $8,000 to $30,000. Deeper wells cost more. But instead of reducing water consumption because of rising costs, drillers say some homeowners are actually using about 30 percent more water to save their lawns and gardens from the death grip of the drought.
Conservation districts popping up around the state restrict the number of water wells on a property. But these restrictions don’t affect unincorporated areas of Tarrant County such as Bella Flora — not yet anyway.
Although there are some rules about proximity, a homeowner or business can drill just about as many wells as they want in Tarrant County provided they pay a $500 application fee for each well.
The Northern Trinity Groundwater Conservation District has joined with three other districts in the state on a three-year, $1.8 million study of the Trinity aquifer.
But Watts says it doesn’t take a scientific study to know that the Trinity Aquifer is an endangered species. With an ever-growing horde of Texans drawing on it each year, common sense dictates that “the water isn’t always going to be here.”
Across the fences
Just outside the gates of Bella Flora, Bret Barnett, 54, drags a hose around his dirt yard on Aledo Oaks Road hoping to salvage the bushes around his house.
After new houses went up behind him along Villa Milano Road a few years ago, he began struggling to get enough water pressure to operate his sprinklers on his 2 1/2 acre lot; they would just sputter to a trickle when he turned the system on.
He resodded his yard twice. But the grass died each time. He had to cut down about a dozen red oaks after they withered in the drought. He points at piles of tree branches and limbs stacked behind his house as evidence.
Barnett, who has lived in his four-bedroom house for more than 12 years, never had to grapple with water pressure headaches before the Bella Flora development went in across the fence.
“Anyone who moves in thinks because it’s free water, they can use as much as they want,” he says. “We all need to realize that we share the same resource. We need to be responsible neighbors and conserve.”
Watts is all too aware of the strain new development is placing on older wells.
One homeowner in the Aledo Oaks neighborhood reported that his well sputtered to a halt when the new development went in. The homeowner spent thousands of dollars to drill another well.
“At one time there’s plenty of water, then a development pops up next door and pulls water out from underneath the old well,” Watts says. “It’s happening in a lot of places. And everyone is having to dig deeper.”
The community of Aledo Oaks was already having water pressure issues when Teel and Tom Leaverton got a letter in the mail a few years ago from the Fort Worth Planning and Zoning Commission announcing that a new development was about to break ground just down the road from their 3-acre plot on Aledo Oaks Road.
“I was livid,” Teel says. “We were already fighting our own battle trying to stay afloat in this drought and now this new development was moving in to tap into the same resource. I told them they were going to suck us dry and that’s pretty much what is happening.”
Even before the new development was built, the water pressure for the Leavertons’ well that barely pumped 25 gallons per minute was beginning to plummet.
When a grass fire threatened their homes a few years ago, homeowners in Aledo Oaks pitched dirt and dipped buckets of water from their pools because their wells didn’t supply enough water pressure to make their hoses work. Teel and her husband installed a 3,000-gallon storage tank to ensure a reliable water supply in case of an emergency.
Teel shakes her head as she points out the bright jade landscape of the Bella Flora neighborhood, where towering water-intensive oak trees and impatiens line the walkways.
She went to gardening classes to learn how to xeriscape her yard with drought-tolerant geraniums and tall grasses. She cut down her red oaks that used to shade her yard and replaced them with crape myrtles because they require less water.
While their neighbors across the fence struggle to maintain water pressure as new developments move in, residents within the gates of Bella Flora are fighting their own battles.
Bella Flora’s developer assured prospective homeowners not to worry about their water supply, saying that the development has a river running underneath it.
Counting on a plentiful aquifer, businessman Mike Dry moved into an 8,000-square-foot house in the Bella Flora development. He was attracted to the neighborhood’s rolling hills, big lots, safe environment and good schools for his two children.
At first, his one well was pumping only about 5 gallons of water per minute for a few hours before it dropped to 2 gallons per minute, barely enough to provide for his six bedrooms, seven bathrooms and a pool.
Although it has gotten better, the pressure was so low when he first moved in that he had to wait sometimes for the well to recharge after his children finished bathing before he could take a shower.
Dry’s neighbors have had similar problems with water pressure. Sometimes it’s dependent on what happens on the other side of the fence. One neighbor had to build an additional well because his water pressure began falling when the owner of the house next door put in another well.
Dry had asked Watts about putting in a second well, too. But he says Watts is hesitant because a second well wouldn’t yield any more water than his first well.
To get more water, Watts says he’d have to drill a deeper well into the Trinity Aquifer that runs below the Paluxy. But that would entail expensive equipment, getting special permits and drilling through deposits of natural gas between the Paluxy and the Trinity aquifers.
Several of Dry’s neighbors spent the extra money to drill deeper into the Trinity, hitting gas instead of water. They had to cap those wells and start over.
As Watts explained to Dry, even if the Trinity well produces water, it would be of much lower quality than water from the Paluxy.
The water pressure and depth that a water driller has to drill to hit water depends on the neighborhood’s location on the aquifer, Watts says, pointing out that Bella Flora is developed in an area that has historically exhibited lower water pressure than surrounding areas. But the drought and growth in housing are making matters worse.
At one point, a group of homeowners approached the developer about putting in a community water storage tank. Soon the developer was digging a new well in the neighborhood. But it was to supply a new decorative pond and two new fountains.
Residents say they have asked whether nearby Benbrook or Fort Worth could lay water lines to their neighborhood but they were told it would be too expensive. Bella Flora’s developers didn’t return repeated phone calls.
“A lot of people don’t realize how awful the water situation is today,” Teel Leaverton says. “We’re sitting on a time bomb. If we’re not careful, it won’t be too long before all of Aledo goes dry.”
Gary Oakes, 71, who lives in the smaller nearby neighborhood of Bella Ranch, is deeply frustrated with what he considers a water crisis. He has had to use a hose to water his lawn when his lawn sprinklers dwindled to a trickle. Panicked, he contacted Watts Drilling Co. to talk about building a second well.
“Homeowners are caught in a quandary,” Oakes says. “We’ve made investments in our homes. There isn’t enough rain, so we are doing what it takes to keep our yards green and our pools filled.”
He says that most people think about conserving water in 100-degree heat, but as soon as it rains a little most people forget about the drought.
That’s due to some “ignorance and stupidity” in planning for the future, says Ron Kaiser, a professor of water law and policy at Texas A&M University. “Ignorance comes from not knowing any better. Stupidity comes from knowing we are running low on water but abusing it anyway.”
A changing industry
Watts doesn’t have a drilling map. Like a fisherman who knows the best watering holes, he travels the back roads of Tarrant County and points out areas of land that yield the lowest and highest water pressure.
Like his grandmother who would cook without a recipe, 20 years of drilling have given him a keen sense of the most promising places to sink holes into the reservoirs underneath his feet.
Watts attended Southern Methodist University and graduated with a history degree from the University of Southern Mississippi. But instead of becoming an historian, he decided to put on a hard hat and earn his place in the family business.
Trucks roll out early from the large metal buildings at the main office of Watts Drilling Co. off U.S. Highway 377 in far west Fort Worth. Inside, Toby’s father, Jack Watts, dressed in cowboy boots and a tall Stetson hat, greets a customer who wants to drill another well because his first one dried up. Another customer comes by to ask if he can get his well repaired.
Jack Watts, now 77, started drilling wells when he was just 14 years old. Budget ledgers, blueprints and photos of wells and drill bits are scattered on his desk. A sign on the wall says, “Well digging is the only job you start at the top.”
Water drilling is the centerpiece of this three-generation water-drilling family. Jack Watts owns a ranch in Lipan with several wells that help irrigate his land and feed his cattle.
In his paneled office, filled with family photos, windows look out onto a large building filled with drilling parts and trucks.
“Drilling was here long before the drought and it’s still going strong now,” Jack Watts says as he walks with a customer to the front door.
Jean Watts, Jack’s wife and Toby’s mother, talks to a customer on the phone who is seeking an estimate for a new well. New drilling orders are sometimes backed up for several weeks, she tells the customer.
Toby’s brother, Tim Watts, meets with a regulator who has come by to gather data on well registrations.
Tim’s wife, Julie, walks into the office, carrying pictures and beaming about news from one of Jack Watts’ five grandchildren. Tyler, a grandson attending college, is coming home for the weekend to help drill a well.
Jack Watts gets up from his desk to point to faded photos of a drilling rig pulled by horses. His father used a wooden sputter cable tool rig powered by gasoline. It used to take three days to dig a well. Now it takes about three hours, he explains.
Jack Watts pauses to reflect. “We’re going to run out of water someday,” he says. “It’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of when.”
But he doesn’t support more regulation for water. His belief is that homeowners have the right to the Earth’s natural resource of water. Still, he worries that many residents aren’t being careful enough when they’re dipping into the aquifer.
“Sadly, we’re not putting water back in as fast as we’re taking it out today,” he says.
At the close of a drilling day, Jack Watts is in his office talking with customers as workmen park the rig in the building and hang up their hard hats in the long shadows of the setting sun.
One of those workmen is Toby Watts. He changes out of his overalls into pressed jeans and a polo shirt, walks into the office to complete paperwork and offers a lingering customer some water.
Toby and his wife, Annunziata, are water conservationists. They limit watering to the bushes around the perimeter of the house on their acre lot in Aledo. And they’re already teaching their 6-year-old son, Lanham, the importance of limiting shower time, turning off the faucet and finishing his glass of water during dinner. The youngster has come to watch his father drill a time or two.
“He’s learning how precious water is for all of us,” Toby Watts says.
Does he want his son to follow in his footsteps and become a well driller, too?
“I don’t know if he would be as busy as I am,” he says. “I don’t know how much water will be left.”