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Texas city strictly limits water consumption as thousands across state face water shortages

A small Texas city west of Austin remains under tight water restrictions amid a significant drought. After days of being at the highest emergency level for water conservation, officials said Monday that those restrictions have only slightly been loosened, limiting water consumption to "indoor use only" until further notice.  

The city of Blanco's most recent water conservation problem has been ongoing since at least mid-June, when the mayor issued an update saying that the "city's water supply is vulnerable." Blanco's water plant was not working at the time, officials said, but even if it were, a local river was "too low for us to take water out of it."

The city's water provider, the Texas Water Company, draws drinking water from the Canyon Lake Reservoir, according to the company.

Canyon Lake has been seeing declining water levels for months. As of Tuesday, it's just under 73% full, according to a map from the Texas Water Development Board, with its reservoir storage having dropped more than 23,300 acre-feet over the past six months. 

"Canyon Lake is dropping, and the long pipeline is fragile," the mayor's office said last month. "We MUST find a better, sustainable source of water."

That situation came to a head on Friday, when officials said that the water company experienced a pipe break. The company had already been "barely" able to keep up with the area's demand, officials said, and the break "was enough for their delivery of water to the City of Blanco to stop altogether."

"Without water pumped in, the supply in our holding tank began to rapidly decline. Were this not quickly resolved, we would be on track for our City water system to run completely dry by midday tomorrow," Blanco Mayor Mike Arnold said.

The event spurred officials to implement "Stage 6" water restrictions — the highest emergency level — and prompted all industrial and recreational water use to end for the time being as the water company worked to repair the pipe.

By Saturday morning, all of the city tanks were full and the supplier once again started to provide some water, but out of an abundance of caution, the city maintained the restrictions.

The city held onto its highest-level restriction until Monday, when officials said that they have moved from Stage 6 to Stage 5 – banning resident water consumption outside of indoor use, as well as landscape irrigation "until further notice."

"Folks, this drought has hit everyone hard. The river and lake levels are very low. Our recent rains barely made an impact," officials said. "While it is a hardship, please stop ALL outdoor water use. We are all in this together, and if we do this, we should be able to make it through this temporary situation without having to resort to more drastic measures."

Every single person in Blanco County, which the U.S. Census Bureau says has an estimated population of 12,418, is affected by drought, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System. Blanco city has an estimated population of 1,883, according to the Census Bureau.

The government monitoring service says 60% of the county is in "extreme" drought, meaning major crop and pasture losses are possible along with widespread water shortages, while the rest of the county is in "severe" drought, meaning crop and pasture losses are likely with water shortages becoming more common. Essentially all of central Texas — and most of the state — is in some kind of drought condition.

And Blanco isn't the only Texas area experiencing a water shortage.

At least eight public water systems across the state, impacting about 1,650 people, could be out of water in 180 days or less, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Four systems impacting more than 20,280 people could be out of water in 45 days or less, as well, and five systems impacting more than 47,330 people currently have their water service interrupted.

The situation is only expected to worsen as global temperatures continue to increase.

In October, the EPA released an action plan to help Texas and other states adapt to the impacts of climate change. In it, the agency said that Texas is most vulnerable to the climate change impacts of sea level rise, more frequent and intense storms, droughts and more frequent and severe wildfires.

"Texas may be more vulnerable to naturally occurring droughts due to the increased demand for limited water supplies due to rapid population growth, especially in urban areas," the EPA says in its report. "Mean annual temperature has increased by approximately 1˚F since the first half of the 20th century. Under a higher emissions pathway, historically unprecedented warming is projected by the end of the 21st century, with associated increases in extreme heat events." 

And this week, cities like Blanco may not see a reprieve from such extreme conditions. 

The extreme heat that has been taking over the West Coast is set to expand across the Southwest and Gulf Coast throughout the week, NOAA warned on Monday.

"Record breaking heat is expected each day through mid-week in the Four Corners states, from Texas to the Lower Mississippi Valley, and South Florida," the agency said. "Daytime highs will routinely reside in the triple digits in the Desert Southwest and deep in the heart of Texas."

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