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.
GALBRAITH
WELL, THAT’S IT: Wary of cheaters, the city now issues official signs to residents with private water sources.
Photograph by Artie Limmer

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:

Dear Sir,
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

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