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Water Woes: Growth, drought raising concerns

Profile image for By Dawn Cobb and Megan Gray
By Dawn Cobb and Megan Gray

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Denton Record-Chronicle staff and graduate students from the University of North Texas School of Journalism under the direction of professor George Getschow worked more than a year interviewing people across Texas and researching the issue of how people are using water, the state of this necessary resource and how some are searching for solutions. The series launches an ongoing effort to keep readers informed about how the drought is affecting daily lives across the state and how some are seeking alternative measures to solve a growing issue as the drought continues and the state attracts more residents. Look for the “Water Woes” logo throughout the next week and coming weeks and months. And, if you have any suggestions, ideas or stories of your own to share, please visit our special projects page on Facebook or send an email to

— Dawn Cobb, managing editor


The term “drought” has become a part of the Texas lexicon as familiar today as it was during the Dust Bowl that swept the southern states in the early 1930s.

The similarities are stark — communities searching for water, a landscape changed, perhaps not by black clouds of eroded soil but by black clouds of raging wildfires. The differences? Residents are not yet fleeing their homes in search of new communities where water is more plentiful. But it could happen one day if city, state and national officials don’t take heed and pool knowledge and resources to find solutions, says Denton Mayor Mark Burroughs.

The lack of rainfall is more insidious this time around, like a thief lurking in the dark shadows of nightfall.

While residents hear the word drought on television news reports or in the newspaper, they don’t necessarily see the long-term impacts to their daily lives, officials say.

What is clear is that many regions in the state are faced with certainty that water resources are tapped — both from a dearth of rain and a surge of new residents flocking to the state from beyond the southern border and from the northern parts of the U.S.

In the next 25 years, the city of Denton is expected to double in size to almost a quarter of a million in population. In 50 years, the Dallas-Fort Worth area is projected to grow to almost 14 million.

“We’re one of the fastest-growing regions in the country and we’ve already almost maxed out on water,” Burroughs said.

The mayor was watching filmmaker Ken Burns’ The Dust Bowl, a documentary that aired on Public Broadcasting Service about the disaster that swept the country’s breadbasket in the 1930s. The film mentions that the Dust Bowl could happen again.

The only deterrent in the past 80-plus years has been the use of the Ogallala Aquifer — an ocean of water that has supplied the nation’s breadbasket with almost a third of the groundwater used for irrigating crops across South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas.

“The Ogallala is being depleted at an alarming rate and will be depleted in the next several decades,” Burroughs said, citing the research he has done since first becoming aware of how significant the lack of water is to the area, state and country as a whole.

The federal government is doing nothing about the issue because it has never in its history looked at freshwater availability at the federal level, Burroughs said. The reason is that growth has historically followed water routes.

“By definition, the growth was where there was available water,” he said. “This [issue] is new but for the Dust Bowl. And the Dust Bowl was solved because there was available an ocean just beneath the surface — the Ogallala.

“Now what?”

Weather patterns

While relief might soon be in sight for springtime gardens, Thursday’s expected rain will not be anywhere near a drop in the bucket to the nearly three and a half years of drought North Texas has been facing.

This year continues to be the third driest on record in the Dallas-Fort Worth area since record-keeping began in 1899, according to the National Weather Service. The last time records showed such limited amounts of rainfall was in 1936, when only 2.8 inches was recorded for the whole year.

Since Jan. 1, Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport has received only 3.93 inches of rain and meteorologists say full relief won’t be seen for the next several months.

“May is generally one of our wettest months before the dry season falls upon us,” Daniel Huckaby, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Fort Worth, said Tuesday. “So far, we are already a week into May and have yet to receive any rainfall. … On top of that, we are already 7 inches below for this year.”

On average, 5 inches of rain generally fall during May, and while scattered storms Thursday might bring some relief to agriculture with up to an estimated 2 inches coming down in the northern regions, it’s not going to help the long-term situation, particularly in Denton County.

Since the drought started in October 2010, precipitation amounts are 43 inches below normal at Denton Enterprise Airport and 50 inches below normal at the Lewisville Dam, one of the most extreme deficiencies in the area, meteorologists with the National Weather Service said.

Lewisville Lake and Ray Roberts Lake are averaging 8 feet below normal, and while they aren’t the lowest in the region, they are getting closer each day under the clear skies and hot sun.

“With the summer months upon us, a 100-degree day can drop the lake levels by an inch,” Huckaby said. “So if we have many 100-degree days with no rain that’s typical with our summers, we will quickly get even worse than we already are.”

James Kunke, spokesman for the city of Lewisville, said this is definitely the worst drought he has seen in his 12 years of working with the city.

“While we have had months before, nothing has lasted the number of years this one has and will continue to do so,” he said. “In the 89 years Lewisville has been a city, I would say this is one of the top three worst droughts we have ever experienced.”

Restrictions on horizon

Starting May 1, Lewisville implemented Stage 1 watering guidelines approved by the City Council on April 21.

Kunke said the guidelines limit residents and commercial properties to twice-a-week watering, and no daytime watering is allowed with the exception of hand-watering, soaker hoses and irrigation systems.

The restriction for daytime usage runs through September, he said, while the twice-a-week watering is now mandatory year-round.

“We tested out the restriction last June and July ... and were very lenient with the whole process,” Kunke said. “We didn’t write any citations, but issued hundreds of warnings. That was just a test, and this year we are going to be enforcing the rules.”

By limiting watering on odd and even days, based on street address numbers, Kunke said the city was able to reduce water usage by 10 percent last summer compared to June and July 2012.

“What we are hoping is to not have to go into Stage 2 — a more stricter stage — and just have residents comply with what we just implemented,” Kunke said.

Lindsey Baker, spokeswoman for the city of Denton, said the city hasn’t had to issue a water restriction yet like many other surrounding cities in the region because of Denton’s partnerships with both lakes and its efforts conserving water in general.

When the lakes drop below 65 percent, that’s the city’s trigger to activate stages of the drought plan, she said.

“We may have to move to Stage 1 [watering restrictions] in the coming months depending on the heat this summer,” Baker said.

The city had to issue a Stage 2 water restriction for six days in August 2001 after the Lewisville pump station suffered a mechanical failure. The stages are four parts, she said, but Stage 1 and 2 have since been changed from voluntary watering restrictions to mandatory ones.

“Not having to issue restrictions so far is a real testament to our water management on a regular basis,” Baker said.

A disastrous equation

With Denton County’s lake reservoirs down between 8 to 10 acre-feet and silt an ongoing issue as it builds up from beneath the water’s surface, capacity in the lakes is not what residents think, Burroughs said, making the concerns about water availability closer at hand than many realize.

The ongoing drought plus the depleting water resources multiplied by the region’s fast growth equals a situation that could escalate, and quickly.

“It’s a disaster that is hard to get those who can do something to do anything on it because it’s such a big issue, an expensive issue,” Burroughs said. “Who will take responsibility for it?”

Burroughs said he hopes an upcoming gathering of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, slated to meet in Dallas next month, will be a platform to draw attention to the national aspects of the problem.

He has submitted a resolution outlining possible ideas for consideration at the federal level where, he said he believes, the issue now lies.

“If you wait for the crisis, we will have the Dust Bowl and not just in Texas ... but throughout the country,” Burroughs said.

DAWN COBB can be reached at 940-566-6879 and via Twitter at @DawnCobbDRC.

MEGAN GRAY can be reached at 940-566-6885 and via Twitter at @MGrayNews.