Blame It on No Rain
As the Permian Basin dries up, Midland’s residents are grappling with a reality they’ve never had to face before: water restrictions. And it isn’t pretty.
On the morning of July 13, a top Midland water official, Johnny Womack, received an email. A down-to-earth man who had given up on dry-land cotton farming more than fifteen years earlier to work for the city’s utilities department, Womack had heard people griping about weird things before, like a neighbor’s trash can being too full. But this kind of letter was new. It read:
My mothers neighbor that lives at [address deleted] waters [their] yard everynight at 3:30 am. The water runs down the curb to the nearby park three blocks away every morning. I have mentioned to the owner that he’s gonna get in trouble and he does not care. Please do something about this man and others like him.Thanks [name deleted]
It had been nearly two weeks since the city council had imposed water restrictions on residents. The situation was dire: Nine months into the third-worst drought in recorded Texas history, only 0.18 inches of rain had fallen at Midland’s airport since October—making it drier than Death Valley. Without rain, the three reservoirs that supply the Permian Basin were projected to go dry by December 2012. Already, one was basically empty, the other was nearly empty, and the third, roughly fifty miles east of San Angelo, was below a quarter full. Voluntary restrictions had been enacted in the spring, but when that didn’t work, they became mandatory on July 1, limiting lawn watering to twice a week. Other Texas cities may have been in the habit of curtailing water use, but for Midland these measures were unprecedented.
And unfortunately timed. Thanks to high oil prices, Midland is hauling in money so fast right now that it is hard to get a weekday hotel room (I put myself on the wait list for four hotels before one finally came through). The city boasts the state’s lowest unemployment rate by far, and builders are requesting new housing permits at the fastest pace in at least ten years. The shortage of a commodity as basic as water—and the threat of more area wildfires—has therefore come as a rude shock. Neighboring Odessa had enacted penalties for water violators a few months earlier, but Midland, with its legendary conservatism, preferred to rely on the public spirit of its citizens to keep water use in check.
“We don’t respond really well to ‘Okay, the government says you’ve got to do this, and by God, you’re going to do it or we’re going to string you up,’ ” Wes Perry, the mayor of Midland, told me in April, when I first visited to report on the drought for the Texas Tribune. A genial oilman who works for EGL Resources, Perry grew up in Midland and understands his town’s mind-set. Oilmen who work in the heat and the dust like to come home to green grass. They are used to taming nature, especially in a place where nature isn’t all that beautiful to begin with. Twice-a-week watering was going to make it hard to keep lawns plush—even more so with temperatures hovering around 100 degrees most days.
Evidence of this was all over town. Driving around in sweltering weather in mid-July, I saw a city that resembled a checkerboard. In just about every block of every neighborhood, a couple of lawns looked immaculate, with healthy grass, tidy shrubs, and even flowers. But most yards had become brown and scraggly, and a few had more or less degenerated into dust. The athletic fields at Robert E. Lee High School had patches that were nearly bare dirt, less than a month before football players were due to return for practice.
By late July, almost three hundred warnings had been issued and just one citation, the outcome of which had not yet been resolved. And about eighty homes and businesses had been granted exemptions (one woman, for example, was given a reprieve for her turtles). Nevertheless, the restrictions were clearly straining relations among Midland’s citizens, who had begun to assume the role of informants. The city was printing up “Hello Neighbor” flyers that residents could hang anonymously on one another’s doors to chastise offenders for watering at the wrong time or for “nuisance” sprinklers running into the street. Some especially green lawns—like the one at Nalley-Pickle and Welch Funeral Home and Crematory—had posted signs that read “Water Well in Use,” in case anyone wondered. (Water wells are exempt from the restrictions.) Wary of cheaters, the city had begun inspecting such wells to make sure that they actually existed and were connected to the property’s water system. Those that passed received official signs. Womack, who has a private well, put his sign inside his front window so that nobody would steal it.
All of this is a bit uncomfortable for a town that prides itself on friendliness and a less- is-more attitude toward government. Perry told me he was disappointed that the voluntary restrictions hadn’t worked but that many Midlanders were wondering why water restrictions hadn’t been tightened earlier; they want the city to hire extra people to enforce the current limits, because they see their neighbors watering at the wrong times. The city has set up a hotline—Perry can recite the number by heart—for people to call with complaints. One man, he said, emailed to inquire about whether he could get a free pass for assaulting his neighbor due to his errant watering practices.
“Midland, Texas—the independent, antigovernment capital of the world,” Perry said with a laugh. “It’s been a bit of a surprise to me too.”
The water situation in Midland, while serious, is hardly the worst in the state, three quarters of which now falls under the frightening classification “exceptional drought.” That distinction goes to places like Llano and Robert Lee, where all outdoor watering is banned and concerns about running out of water are growing. Robert Lee relies on Lake E.V. Spence, which normally supplies the Permian Basin but now, at less than one percent full, has been reduced to giant puddles. Communities in Kendall and Irion counties are struggling too, as water well levels fall sharply and the groundwater is not replenished.
But Midland’s situation is uniquely tough. Between October and late July it saw less rain than any other big city in Texas. Extreme heat and high winds have exacerbated the effects of the drought. “I’m sure evaporation will be more than what we pump out of the lakes,” said John Grant, the general manager of the Colorado River Municipal Water District, speaking about projections for the year’s end. The CRMWD, the wholesale supplier that draws from the lakes, cut its allocations to Midland and other customer cities this summer by 20 percent, and it could mandate further cuts over the winter.
From Perry’s perspective, changes in his city’s water habits are overdue. Soon after I arrived in July, I went to see him at his house, a gracious red-stucco structure he built some years ago on the outskirts of town. Midland was built in a desert, he told me, and one day it might need to look like a desert city, perhaps like Phoenix or Tucson. The landscape around his own home included yucca and other drought-resistant plants—as well as a pool and a tall outdoor fountain and a modest (and somewhat bedraggled) lawn. Perry, like Womack, gets his water from a private well, but he said he’s still water-conscious—he even turns off the shower when he shampoos his hair. He wants water improvements, including expanded supplies, to be his legacy.
Elsewhere, residents were feeling the shortage in other acute ways. As lake levels dwindled and algae grew, even the drinking water was beginning to taste and smell bad. Stuart Purvis, Midland’s director of utilities, chuckled when I mentioned that I had downed some tap water at my hotel. “It doesn’t hurt you,” he said, explaining that the water has been treated but is simply not pleasant. (True: It tasted . . . strong.) Many Permian Basin residents, including Grant, always get their water from street kiosks where you can bring your own jug and fill it, for 25 cents a gallon, at a machine that cleans water through reverse osmosis. Jan Artley, an environmental advocate with the League of Women Voters, told me that she puts containers of reverse osmosis water in the bathroom, so that no one in her household has to brush his teeth or take vitamins with moldy-smelling water.
Long-term, the Permian Basin’s salvation may lie in groundwater. Unlike the clean waters of the Ogallala to the north, however, some of the Basin’s aquifers are highly saline, with large amounts of chlorides, fluorides, or arsenic. Old-timers in Midland are said to have mottled teeth from drinking groundwater, as people used to do in the early part of the last century, when Midland was called Windmill Town. When I spoke with Lisa Tindol, a resident with a private well, she said she replaces her faucets every other year because of corrosion. So if groundwater is the answer, some areas will likely require an expensive desalination plant. Another issue: competition with oil companies, which can use a million or more gallons of groundwater for each oil well they drill with hydraulic fracturing. Perry told me this usage won’t constrain Midland’s supplies, but communities elsewhere in Texas are increasingly worried about it.
Over time, as new sources of water are developed with expensive infrastructure, the cost of water for ordinary citizens is bound to go up—which could deliver another jolt to a place that doesn’t like paying for government. The CRMWD pumps some groundwater from Ward County, west of Odessa, and this summer it decided to build a pipeline to the area, to allow for expanded production. That will add $11 or $11.50 per month to the water bills of residents in Midland, Odessa, and other customer cities starting in October. Midland, which will lose about half its reservoir rights in 2029 when a contract with the CRMWD ends, also owns several decades’ worth of water at a groundwater well field called the T-Bar Ranch. But as I learned from Purvis, developing it would cost $140 million to $150 million. He worries about how residents might react to absorbing that cost (roughly $1,400 per person, I calculated). Midland is also in discussions with Abilene and San Angelo about possible joint projects, such as a new dam or access to another reservoir. In perhaps the most interesting move of all, by late next year the CRMWD plans to begin operating a small plant in Big Spring that will give treated sewage a further cleansing, then inject two million gallons of it each day into the drinking water system. That’s a first, or nearly so, for the country.
Meanwhile, with the drought dragging on, a few resourceful residents have figured out that adversity makes for good business opportunities, big or small. On more than one occasion, I heard about longtime oilman Clayton Williams and how he wants to pipe groundwater from Pecos County to Midland (so far he has been held up by Pecos officials, who want to keep it there). And in east Odessa I met an eighteen-year-old aspiring musician, Christian Poldrack, who has set up a business that sprays lawns with green dye. He had done jobs for only a handful of customers when I visited—a slight equipment failure, he explained—but he eagerly demonstrated the technique on his own grass, which glistened as it dried into what he described, not inaccurately, as a “real natural look.”
Poldrack’s work could be in demand if all outdoor watering gets banned next summer, which Perry told me could happen if it doesn’t rain. The mayor had issued a pray-for-rain proclamation early in the spring, even before Governor Rick Perry (no relation) did the same over Easter weekend. Alas, by late summer the forecasts hadn’t improved: Rains were not expected in early fall, and meteorologists were saying that La Niña, a chief cause of the drought, could return. “It will be interesting,” Mayor Perry said, “to see when the drought stops what people will do.”
A few days after visiting with the mayor, who had by then left for an Alaska fishing trip, I joined several dozen residents at a drought landscaping workshop, held in the as-hippie-as-Midland-gets Sibley Nature Center. The head of the center, Burr Williams, a ponytailed Santa Claus figure who has been preaching about drought-tolerant trees and plants for decades, was just going on about the virtues of the bigtooth maple and the Chinese pistache when a sharp clap of thunder sounded.
“All right! Yeah!” hollered Williams as the audience erupted in cheers. A few minutes later, a pounding could be heard on the metal roof. “That’s rain!” Williams bellowed.
I slipped outside and found a cluster of people standing on a covered walkway admiring the downpour, which would total 0.15 inches at that site, nearly matching the airport’s nine-month total, though other parts of town got far less. On a nearby field, some youngsters, soaked and exuberant, played soccer. “See it. Smell it. Hear it. Feel it,” marveled Mark Moshell, who had come to the workshop in a red ConocoPhillips shirt.
Williams joined us outside when he finished his talk. The rain was still coming down, more lightly now but still dripping wonderfully off the roof, and the powerful fragrance of wet earth filled the air.
“Okay,” he said, “how many people want to get down to their skivvies and dance?”