The Last Drop

The good news is that Texas has an incredibly detailed plan for how to deal with the looming shortfalls in every one of its major urban areas. The bad news is that you can’t drink a plan.
Photograph by Adam Voorhes


Everybody remembers September 15, 2035. Just as they can tell you where they were on September 11, 2001, they can recall what they were doing 34 years later on the day that Dallas and Fort Worth ran out of water. It came at the end of a brutal five-year drought. The population had been multiplying like bacteria, residents had done little to conserve their water, and municipal governments had not spent nearly enough money on building new pipelines and reservoirs. Finally, on September 15, a Saturday, the big water suppliers announced that they were shutting down the pipelines. That was the day nothing came out of the faucet. That was the day everything still living withered and died.

Does this seem like a far-fetched scenario, the sort of nightmarish confluence of human error and act of God that could never really happen? Then consider the events of the summer of 2006 in the northern and eastern suburbs of Dallas, a part of the area known to state water planners as Region C. An eighteen-month drought had left Plano, Richardson, Mesquite, and other suburbs in a precarious position, and there was still no rain forecast, no end in sight. As the cities smoldered, the huge reservoirs that served them dropped to ever more alarming levels. Jim Chapman Lake emptied to 15 percent of its capacity, Lavon Lake to 36 percent. People began to realize that there were no backups, no lines to other reservoirs. Water hogs were slapped with fines—more than six thousand levied in Plano alone. Locks were unceremoniously clamped onto delinquent sprinkler systems. Nervous citizens were told they might soon face a stage four emergency, a condition that would mean the end of nearly all lawn watering (and thus, soon enough, of nearly all lawns) and eventually strict rationing.

Luckily, that did not happen. Small rains came in late 2006, followed by very big rains in the spring and summer of 2007. Reservoirs refilled, the crisis was averted, life returned to normal. But for anyone paying attention, the episode was terrifying: 1.6 million people had come within a meteorological whisker of a catastrophic water shortage. And the drought of 2005—2006 was not even a particularly bad one. It was nowhere near as severe as the seven-year drought of the fifties, during which Dallas had to build an emergency pipeline to the Red River. That fix worked, but only because the population of Dallas proper was just 600,000 or so. Today it’s 1.2 million.

The simple fact is that Region C—which includes Tarrant, Dallas, Collin, Denton, Rockwall, and eleven other counties—is getting too big for its water supplies: Ever-increasing numbers of people and businesses are straining resources built to accommodate a much smaller crowd. Unlike the Panhandle and the Llano Estacado, which sit on top of North America’s largest aquifer, the Ogallala, Region C relies almost entirely on surface water; unlike rainy East Texas, its reserves of that commodity are quite limited. This makes Region C uniquely vulnerable to drought. The water contained in the twelve reservoirs that serve Dallas and Fort Worth is completely inadequate to meet future need. The state’s official projections for the water shortfall over the next fifty years are nothing less than astonishing.

These projections begin with explosive growth. Between 2010 and 2060, Region C’s population is expected to roughly double, from 6.6 million to 13.1 million. That will account for 28.5 percent of the state population. Water use will increase 87 percent, from 1.8 million acre-feet per year in 2010 to 3.3 million acre-feet in 2060. Meanwhile, as demand increases dramatically, existing sources of supply—rivers and lakes and groundwater in the area—will actually decline by 9 percent, mostly due to the silting in of reservoirs and the depletion of aquifers, leaving a shortfall of 1.93 million acre-feet per year. That is more than the entire current water usage in the area. (One acre-foot is 325,851 gallons, which, broadly speaking, is enough to meet the water needs of two suburban families for one year.)

The water problems that Texas as a whole faces are comparable. Water planners predict that, like Region C, Texas is expected to roughly double its population by 2060, to 46 million. Surface water will be the source of most of the water for our giant urban centers, yet existing groundwater and surface water supplies will drop, by about 18 percent, leaving a mind-boggling statewide shortfall of some 8.8 million acre-feet per year—the equivalent output of 85 large reservoirs.

Every major city in Texas has its own unique water problem: San Antonio relies almost entirely on groundwater and will need to find new supplies in aquifers other than the Edwards, the pumping of which is now limited by law; El Paso, long reliant on water from the Rio Grande and Pecos rivers and groundwater from two primary aquifers, will have to desalinate brackish groundwater and reuse reclaimed water to survive; Houston relies on groundwater and surface water but must wean itself off groundwater, because the more it pumps the more the city sinks into the earth.

Of all these, though, the cities of Dallas and Fort Worth face the worst dilemma, a sort of perfect storm

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