SPICEWOOD - Tanker trucks loaded with water have become the lifeline for a Texas lakefront village that came precariously close to becoming the state's first community to run out of drinking water during a historic drought.
Spicewood got its first delivery of water Monday under dark clouds and rain. The 8,000-gallon water delivery arrived after it became clear the village's wells could no longer produce enough water to meet the needs of the Lake Travis community's 1,100 residents and elementary school, said Clara Tuma, spokeswoman of the Lower Colorado River Authority.
The town uses wells, not the nearby lake, for its drinking water. Ryan Rowney, manager of water operations for the authority, said it plans to truck water into the Central Texas town for several more weeks while exploring alternatives, including drilling a new well or piping water from Lake Travis. But the agency doesn't want to rush into any project, and prefers for now to pay $200 per truckload of water while ensuring the tens of thousands of dollars it will cost to find a permanent solution are well-spent.
Several towns and villages in Texas have come close to running out of water during the driest year in Lone Star State history, but until now none has had to truck in water. Most found solutions to hold them over, often paying tens of thousands of dollars to avoid hauling water, a scenario that conjures up images from the early 1900s, when indoor plumbing was a novelty.
"The hauling of water is just a Band-Aid approach. It's just a short-term approach," said Joe Don Dockery, a Burnet County commissioner that oversees the Spicewood area.
The Lower Colorado River Authority realized last week how dire the situation was, and informed Dockery on Monday. By the next day, the situation was worse - the well had dropped an additional 1.3 feet overnight. The severest forms of water restrictions were put in place, and the authority said there would be no new hookups to the town's water supply.
Water still ran Monday through pipes and faucets of Spicewood. But instead of being pumped from wells into the community's 129,000-gallon storage tank - a two day's supply of water - the already treated liquid will be hauled in from 17 miles away, treated a second time and put into the town's water system.
"If we need to haul every day, we will. This will probably go on for several more months," Rowney said.
Trucks, including at least one 6,000 gallon tanker, will make about four or five deliveries a day, Rowney said, but the town will still have to remain under the severest water restrictions.
"All you can do is take a bath, a shower, and that's really all you're allowed to do. You can flush the commode, but even that we're asking people to do judiciously," Rowney said.
Spicewood, about 35 miles from Austin, is home to many retirees who spend their weekdays in the city and drive to their lakeside homes on the weekends. Residents are now being careful, taking shorter showers, and some are even bringing their clothes to Laundromats.
Until last week, when it became clear they could run out water, the most exciting event in Spicewood was the upcoming wild game chili cook-off advertised on a roadside sign at the entrance to the small community.
"When we had water it was pretty nice here," deadpanned Riley Walker a 73-year-old state transportation employee.
Walker bought land in Spicewood in 1988 when only a handful of families lived here. He built a house and moved into town full time in 2002.
"I have faith they will haul water in. They don't really have a choice; there are a lot of people here," Walker said.
Joe Barbera, president of the local property owner's association, said residents have been "really worried about this for a long time now," but have always been conservation minded.
"You look around and you don't see any immaculate lawns," he added. "This is just normal use for a normal community."
For more than a year, nearly the entire state of Texas has been in some stage of severe or exceptional drought. Rain has been so scarce lakes across the state turned into pools of mud. One town near Waco, Groesbeck, bought water from a rock quarry and built a seven-mile pipeline through a state park to get water. Some communities on Lake Travis moved their intake pipes into deeper water. And Houston started getting water from an alternative, farther away reservoir when Lake Houston ran too low.
Although it has started to rain more this winter, it's not enough to fill the state's arid rivers and lakes.
A few inches of rain certainly won't be enough to fill Spicewood's wells.
"We're talking about rainfall events of 20 inches plus. Huge, huge flood events to bring the lake levels up," Rowney said. "The downside of that is that everyone's praying for a flood, well floods can be bad too."