City enters Stage 5 drought restrictions, could deplete supply within next 180 days
By Philip Jankowski
Killeen Daily Herald
FLORENCE - This small town of 1,136 is thirsty.
For nearly a year, residents have been under water restrictions, and the city is in danger of exhausting its entire water supply in the next 180 days if nothing changes, according to a state agency.
Florence relies on an aged system of four wells to provide water to a little more than 1,400 customers in and around the rural community located on State Highway 195 between Killeen and Georgetown.
Two of the four wells are pumping no water. One of the remaining wells is more than 45 years old and is operating far below capacity.
The city is relying heavily on the other, which is about 15 years old and "no young lady," said Mary Condon, Florence's mayor.
If that well malfunctions, the city could run out of water in days.
Entering Stage 5
On May 28, the city entered Stage 5 water restrictions, the final phase of its drought contingency plan. Residents are prohibited from watering their lawns, filling swimming pools and washing cars. Restaurants may only serve water upon request. Violators could face a fine of up to $2,000 as the populace attempts to reduce water consumption by 20 percent.
On Thursday, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality listed Florence as being in danger of running out of water in 180 days. Condon said that will only happen if nothing changes to the city's water supply.
The two offline wells are on the verge of resuming operations. One, which has been offline since July 2011, needs to pass a bacteria test, while the other, which went offline in December, awaits a replacement mechanical part, said Wayne Bonnet, Florence's official tasked with overseeing the water system.
The city has spent $25,000 refurbishing both wells. Condon said she hopes to see one, if not both, up and running by the end of next week.
But even if all four wells operate at 100 percent, the water system would not meet TCEQ guidelines for the size of its customer base.
The state commission mandates that Florence pump at least 293 gallons of water per minute. It currently pumps 137 per minute. At maximum capacity, the water system can pump 272 gallons per minute, said Condon.
A spokeswoman for TCEQ said the city could face fines if the water supply is not increased, though any violations would likely be overlooked because of a proclamation signed by Gov. Rick Perry last year applying to areas facing drought and wildfires.
"Enforcement discretion could be granted," said Andrea Morrow, TCEQ spokeswoman.
Being placed on the TCEQ's emergency list allows the agency to provide technical assistance to the municipality. The designation also opens up grant dollars from other agencies, though that money is limited.
Even if the wells begin pumping water into the city's pressurized 150,000-gallon system, the water supply still faces challenges.
Florence draws its water from the Trinity Aquifer, essentially relying upon rains in West Texas near Abilene to recharge its water table.
Drought conditions classified as extreme and exceptional have persisted there, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
City officials discovered the depth of the aquifer's water table had fallen when one of the wells began to work only intermittently last summer. No water was there for it to pump, the mayor said.
The big fix would be for Florence to tap into the Chisholm Trail Special Utility District, a water supplier that provides water from the southern tip of Bell County to Sun City in Williamson County and parts of Burnet County. Authorities for the water district and Florence are currently working on completing a contract, said Gordon Pierce, the district's general manager.
Condon said tapping into Chisholm Trail would cost the city up to $700,000. For a city like Killeen, it would be a manageable cost, but for Florence, that represents more than half of the city's annual budget.
Residents and business owners have many complaints about their water.
Linda Smart, owner of Linda's Liquor, said she will wait until after her store closes to wash any dishes; otherwise customers complain about the smell. Others say the water comes out black when faucets are first turned on.
April Farrar, owner of Florence Diner, said she only serves bottled water at her restaurant.
"Ever since I moved here, that water has tasted funny," said Farrar. "People don't like to go to restaurants and drink it."
Condon said what Florence faces may represent a new era in water supplies. Though residents have been angry, and the price of water has risen, she said she was happy to see people abide by the restrictions.
"I just think people in the Southwest are going to have to get used to paying more for their water," she said. "It's a precious resource."
Contact Philip Jankowski at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7553. Follow him on Twitter at KDHcrime.