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‘Culture Shock’

In West Texas, reservoirs are going dry

In June, the Austin American-Statesman reported that in the wake of emergency water restrictions enforced during the 2011 drought, some homeowners in West Austin neighborhoods were paying to have private wells drilled in the Edwards Aquifer—not for drinking water, but, according to a drilling company spokesman, for water to keep their lawns and landscaping lush and green.

At the same time, almost 300 miles to the northwest in Big Spring, Colorado River Municipal Water District Manager John Grant wearily took another phone call. Yes, he said, it’s true: The district is running out of surface water.

It’s a terrifying sight that symbolizes the plight of the CRMWD (www.crmwd.org), which serves member cities Big Spring, Odessa and Snyder and eight municipal customers, including Midland, Robert Lee and San Angelo. People throughout the district aren’t worried about watering their grass. They’re afraid that nothing will come out of the faucet.

“It’s culture shock out here,” Grant said, explaining that:

• For the first time in its 63-year history, the CRMWD has been forced to limit water deliveries to some municipal customers.

• For the first time, the three major surface-water supplies that the district owns and operates—Lake J.B. Thomas near Snyder, E.V. Spence Reservoir near Robert Lee and O.H. Ivie Reservoir near Ballinger, which help supply water to 500,000 people—are horrifyingly almost empty.

• And for the first time, the district is shifting from supplying surface water—i.e., from reservoirs—to groundwater.

“We’re cutting it close,” Grant said in June. The district stopped pumping from E.V. Spence in fall 2011 and from J.B. Thomas in early May. In mid-summer, officials said they hoped to keep pumping from O.H. Ivie, which at that time was less than 16 percent full, until 2013. Now, it’s a race against time to switch almost exclusively to groundwater. To that end, the CRMWD, which operates five well fields, is drilling new water wells in Ward County, near Monahans, expanding its overall system from about 40 to 60-plus wells. The Ward County work includes the acquisition of pump stations and pipelines.

The CRMWD’s evolving water plan also hinges on the success of a $13.5 million water reclamation plant—the first project of its kind in North America—scheduled to go online in December in Big Spring. The facility, which has been approved for construction by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (tceq.state.tx.us), will help produce a new water source from effluent—the final product from a wastewater treatment plant— in a process overseen by the TCEQ.

The effluent will be treated twice, first through reverse-osmosis filtration at the reclamation plant. Next, it will be blended with reservoir water at a conventional drinking water treatment plant. From there, an estimated 2 million gallons of additional water a day will serve about 250,000 people across the district.

The blended mix will meet all drinking water regulation requirements as set by the TCEQ and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, says Marlo Berg, an engineer in the TCEQ’s water-supply division.

About 15 percent of the new blended, treated water supply will come from the reclamation plant, with the remainder from reservoir water. The reclamation plant has drawn national attention—and criticism from some who question the process involved and the safety of drinking treated effluent. In response, Berg says of the state-of-the-art reverse-osmosis filtration system, “The quality of that water coming from the reclamation plant will match or be better than what is coming out of the lakes.”

Meanwhile, by summer, the Big Spring area had received slightly above-average rainfall for the year, leading some to think that area reservoirs would start filling back up. But because the ground was so dry, and because drought conditions were well entrenched, there was little to no runoff into rivers and reservoirs, which can take years to fill.

The water reclamation plant should offer some relief, Grant says, putting the situation into context: “Two million gallons a day is not a lot, but there are no more silver bullets. If we could make it rain, we would.”

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Camille Wheeler, former associate editor