West Texas town fights for survival as reservoirs run dry
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Denton Record-Chronicle and University of North Texas journalism graduate students and faculty worked more than a year researching the water woes facing the Dallas-Fort Worth area and across the state. Though this is the last of eight consecutive days of stories about the issue, others will soon follow in the coming weeks. Visit www.dentonrc.com/local-news/special-projects for the full series.
ROBERT LEE — “Did y’all get much water on your place?” drawls an apron-clad grandmother in a pastel green blouse from behind the deli counter as a customer wearing cowboy boots saunters into Cindy’s Groceries, BBQ & Gas.
Proprietor Cindy Brown is busy making the day’s chopped beef sandwiches and baking a batch of chocolate chip cookies. In keeping with her daily routine, Brown scurries around cooking, baking and cleaning as her regulars flock into her cafe like clockwork for their coffee at 7:30 and 9:30 a.m. and high noon.
What stands out in Brown’s cafe, however, isn’t the coffee or her customers coming through her beat-up front door. It’s a jug of murky water sitting on the countertop with a handwritten note in black Sharpie: “Yum! Remember When May 2012.”
The jug stands as a kind of ghoulish monument to the time this flyspeck town squatting on the Great Southern Plains of Texas almost ran out water. As the jug suggests, the last few years have been a harrowing adventure for Robert Lee’s ranchers, roughnecks, farmers, housewives and their families who endured Texas’ worst one-year drought in history.
For its 1,049 residents, Robert Lee had become an inferno of 100-plus degree heat that sucked almost every drop of water out of the town’s two surface reservoirs, sparked wildfires across the county and, in numerous other ways, imprisoned everyone in a world of misery.
Inside Brown’s cafe, the normally chirpy mood of patrons turned grim. Their ranches were scorched. Dust devils swirled like brown ghosts across the prairie. Their water-starved animals were sick or dying. And simple pleasures like turning on a faucet for a glass of water or taking a shower had become a horrifying experience.
As the town’s reservoirs evaporated, townspeople discovered that their water began tasting like seawater and smelling like sewer waste. What new calamities were on the horizon, Brown and her patrons wondered aloud. Was the next Dust Bowl just around the corner?
“I remember growing up reading about ghost towns,” says Brown, the deep wrinkles on her face reflecting a hard life spent on the edge of a desert. “I remembered why a place became a ghost town was because it ran out of water.”
Today, the nearby ghost towns of Hayrick, Silver, Edith and Sanco — existing only in the form of abandoned schoolhouses, cemeteries and historical markers — serve as a painful reminder to families here what would happen to them if they were to run out of water.
The year it was founded, in 1891, Robert Lee possessed a precious commodity in rare supply: an abundance of water. The once-gushing tributaries of the Colorado River fed the water table under the town and the ranches sprouting atop the flat expanses between rocky outcrops and plateaus.
Coveting Robert Lee’s water, the thirsty residents of Hayrick voted to move there and make it the county seat.
But 121 years later, on May 22, 2012, Robert Lee had less than 12 hours of water left before its reservoirs dried up completely, putting residents in a state of panic and fear that their town might be reduced to just another one of the ghost towns dotting the Southern Plains.
Brown, like every resident here, recalls that day clearly. Suddenly, the town’s water turned salty and murky, the reverse osmosis filters for her fountain drink machine stopped working and her icemaker began producing chocolate-colored cubes. Brown was forced to buy bags of ice from an out-of-town supplier.
During those dark days in Robert Lee, the one business that boomed was veterinarians. The muddy and salty water from the town’s rapidly evaporating reservoirs were making cats, dogs, cattle and horses so sick that they couldn’t eat.
Hundreds of buzzards lined the shores of the reservoirs, feasting on mounds of dead fish broiled atop cracked mud cakes. Town officials declared Robert Lee’s water unsafe, and urged its residents to boil it or buy bottled water.
“I’ve been a certified water operator for 30 years,” says Eddie Ray Roberts, the town’s beleaguered water superintendent. “Here was the first time I bought bottled water to drink.”
Hundreds of panicked residents packed into their high school auditorium to discuss with their elected representatives and plant officials what to do. A chorus of acrimony broke out, recalls Mayor John Jacobs, as residents “wondered angrily why the town had let itself reach this point.”
But after two and a half hours of debate and finger-pointing, a water-rescue plan was reached. Robert Lee would request emergency government funding and loans to build a $2.8 million pipeline to tap a neighboring town’s water reservoir 12 miles away. Robert Lee’s neighbors in Bronte quickly approved the rescue plan.
Desperate to get the pipeline underway before Robert Lee’s reservoirs dried up completely, the mayor put out a call for volunteers.
In early January 2012, as a biting wind blew into Robert Lee, a group of some 25 ranchers, farmers and oilfield roughnecks in bib overalls showed up at the Mountain Creek reservoir on the outskirts of town with backhoes, ditch-digging machines, shovels, giant wrenches and other tools to begin building the pipeline to Bronte.
The town “was in dire need of water,” says Donald Robertson, a 69-year-old oilfield mechanic who volunteered to help lay the pipeline.
The community came together and “spilled their hearts out to help,” he says.
The volunteers had special marching orders: The state Department of Agriculture agreed to provide the pipe and other materials if volunteers agreed to build the first 5.5 miles of the pipeline across private ranchland.
The volunteers’ mission was to lay pipeline to State Highway 158 as quickly as possible so that state contractors could pick up construction on public land along the highway to Bronte.
The volunteers were acutely aware that Robert Lee’s existence was dependent on the success of their mission. Starting at 8 each morning, they began digging and laying pipe through rock-hard, mesquite-covered terrain.
Like an army, every person on the crew played a critical role. As one team of volunteers dismantled barbed-wire fences, another group dug 3-foot-deep trenches. Another crew, following behind the front-line forces, jumped into the ditches to lay and snap together the 10-inch diameter polyethylene pipes.
Backhoe operators then moved up from behind them to cover the pipeline with tons of dirt. And finally, two more crews advanced from the rear, one with shovels to spread loose dirt across the pipeline and another to reassemble the barbed-wire fences.
By noon, the march of the pipeline crew was halted by another group of volunteers from town who arrived in pickups loaded with barbecue sandwiches, beans, potato salad and bottled water. Even Robert Lee’s high school home economics classes pitched in by cooking meals for the town’s army of volunteers.
Everyone had “a certified, vested interest in completing the pipeline,” says Roberts.
But even as progress on the pipeline surged forward across the prairie, Roberts found himself becoming increasingly mired in major drought-related problems popping up all over town.
In the town, the soil had become so baked and brittle from the drought that the town’s antiquated water pipes began breaking willy-nilly, spewing water into the air and leaving puddles on streets. Armed with buckets and bottles, residents swarmed to the broken pipes like water-starved nomads discovering a desert spring. They used the salvaged water to revive their dying plants and animals.
During a holiday break, Robert Lee High School’s new boiler broke down, flooding the school. Repairmen got it working again, but only for a while. The boiler kept breaking down because of salt and contaminants in the water.
The boiler manufacturer refused to honor the warranty, claiming Robert Lee’s water was bad, not the boiler.
In many other ways, Robert Lee seemed condemned by Neptune, the Roman god of water. Suddenly, rusty shut-off valves in the town’s water tower stopped working and the tower had to be drained. And as water levels in Lake E.V. Spence plunged 100 feet below the intake valve, the town’s water treatment plant had to be shut down.
All of which explains why Robert Lee’s volunteer pipeline crew completed its part of the 5.5-mile pipeline in just 18 days.
“We were on the tail end of nothing,” recalls Roberts.
But the state contractors weren’t nearly as successful in laying pipe along Highway 158 as the volunteers were in laying pipe across private ranchland.
A freak snowstorm froze the ground for days, and when it thawed, “it was so muddy and slick they couldn’t continue work for a while,” says Roberts. It took the contractors four months to complete the remaining 6.5 miles of pipeline. But finally, on May 22, Bronte’s water began flowing through the pipeline to Robert Lee.
“We were literally down to hours’ worth of water,” says Roberts.
Robert Lee’s residents, however, weren’t convinced the water coming from Bronte into their faucets was safe to drink.
At Rangel’s Mexican Restaurant, four young women walked in and sat down at a table during the crisis the summer before last. A waitress walked up to take their drink order. The young women asked if bottled water was available.
“We only have RO,” the waitress said, referring to the reverse osmosis-treated water from the new pipeline. The young women were reluctant, hesitating before finally nodding, “OK.”
Skepticism over the safety of Robert Lee’s new water supply was so widespread that the town superintendent decided to launch his own “our-water-is-now-safe” campaign.
He walked door-to-door, block by block, with a Styrofoam cup in hand asking residents to turn on their faucets. After watching him drink, residents tasted the water themselves. They were much relieved to find that “the new water” actually tasted like water.
“For most people, it had been so long since they could actually drink from the tap, they were hesitant,” says Roberts.
But while Bronte’s water is safe to drink, Robert Lee’s residents have discovered that it’s also expensive.
To pay for construction of the pipeline and Bronte’s 220,000 gallons of water delivered each day, Robert Lee has had to raise its residents’ water rates 136 percent on the first 1,000 gallons of water used, and 180 percent for customers using 4,000 gallons of water a day or more.
And because Robert Lee is limited to 220,000 gallons a day compared to the 500,000 gallons used each day in the pre-pipeline days, the mayor says that “the only way we survive is that everyone is doing what they can to conserve water. It was this or the town would have died.”
Robert Lee’s conservation measures include replacing the natural grass covering its football field with artificial turf and using sewage effluent to keep its golf course green. But the water superintendent knows these are only stop-gap measures. Robert Lee is scrambling, he says, to come up with what he calls “a sustainable water source.”
So far, the search for a permanent solution has been elusive. Robert Lee drilled some water wells around town only to discover the underground aquifers have been tainted by salt and other contaminants from leaky oil wells abandoned years ago.
The town is now drilling some new water wells farther away from town, hoping to find clean water.
Beyond these steps, what town officials and residents are doing more than anything is getting on bended knees each morning and looking up toward the sky.
“We’re praying for rain,” says Roberts. “There’s not much else you can do out here in West Texas.”