EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one in an ongoing series of stories examining our drinking water supply. Look for the Water Watch logo.
Recent problems in Marlin, Texas, and Flint, Mich., brought drinking water disasters to the forefront, but we don’t have to look back far to find our own water problems.
• On July 12, 2014, a construction worker ruptured a main water pipeline, effectively shutting down Fort Hood, and putting Killeen, Harker Heights and Copperas Cove into the highest levels of their conservation plans.
• In 2012, Florence, a small town 20 miles south of Killeen, went dry after a motor on the town’s largest well broke down. The city had to haul 10,000 gallons of water per day from Cedar Park to get by. Florence has since had additional problems with wells and is currently in Stage 4 rationing.
The city of Marlin, 20 miles southeast of Waco, lost water last year due to a malfunctioning treatment plant. About 6,000 customers were without water for a week, while water conservation efforts were in place for months because of a series of maintenance failures at the treatment plant.
Flint’s water became contaminated with lead when the southeastern Michigan city switched from the Detroit municipal system and began drawing from the Flint River in April 2014 to save the struggling city money, and the water was not properly treated to keep lead from pipes from leaching into the supply, according to The Associated Press.
For years, Texas grappled with severe drought conditions until 2015 — the wettest year on record. Recent rains aside, water is still a hot commodity, sparking water rights wars in neighboring cities. In December, the Herald reported that hundreds of Bell County residents lost water rights when the Public Utility Commission of Texas transferred the Chisholm Trail Special Utility District’s water rights to the city of Georgetown. Water is a vital yet vulnerable component of daily life. Without water, schools, businesses and communities at large cannot operate.
The majority of local drinking water comes from Belton Lake through a network of pipelines. Killeen, Copperas Cove, Fort Hood, Belton, Nolanville and Harker Heights purchase treated Belton Lake water from the same provider — Bell County Water Control and Improvement District No. 1. Smaller area cities — Salado, Kempner, Lampasas and Gatesville — purchase water through different means.
Founded in 1952, WCID No. 1 was created to provide water and sewer service to the area, said Ricky Garrett, its general manager. At the time, the Belton Lake project had a construction price tag of $17 million. The purpose of Belton Lake, according to the WCID No. 1 website, is for flood control, conservation and water supply. Belton Lake has a capacity of 887,000 acre-feet of water, or 289.03 billion gallons, of which 42 percent is reserved for water supply. The water district serves a population of about 250,000 people, according to the site, and can treat and deliver over 90 million gallons of water daily.
The Salado Water Company acquires its water from eight wells supplied by the Edwards Aquifer. Kempner and Lampasas citizens drink water sourced from Stillhouse Hollow Lake. Florence relies on a combination of ground water and Chisholm Trail surface water. The majority of Gatesville residents obtain their water from Belton Lake through the Gatesville Regional Water Supply.
In their water master plans, local cities and water districts have projected future water needs anywhere from five to 80 years. What remains to be seen is how well prepared these cities would be in the event of an unexpected catastrophic water shortage.
In a worst-case scenario, if water supplies were depleted or tainted, residents would look to local emergency officials and water districts to supply enough water to meet day-to-day needs. The Herald talked to local city officials and water districts about their doomsday water plans and found that emergency plans vary by city and entity.
In an emergency, Killeen, Harker Heights, Copperas Cove and Fort Hood officials said they would look to conservation efforts to reduce the depletion of stored water supplies. Steve Kana, Killeen director of water and sewer utilities, said depending upon the time of year, demand and level in storage tanks, Killeen’s water supply — 41 million gallons — could last three to four days with conservation efforts in place.
“Our treated water storage capacity and water conservation plan make a scenario in which the city could not provide water or could not restore water service before exhausting our reserves extremely unlikely,” said city spokeswoman Hilary Shine, “but in the event that additional water was needed, it would have to be brought in from other water sources.”
Brian Dosa, Fort Hood's public works director, said the Army post's reserve supply — 9 million gallons of water — would last 24 to 48 hours depending on the season and day of week.
“We would handle this kind of emergency in the same way we deal with others: stand up the Fort Hood Emergency Operations Center to assist III Corps leadership in command and control, and in managing the crisis,” Dosa said. “One mitigating factor would be to use water trucks and trailers to transport water from North Fort Hood to main post.”
Salado has a special agreement with Kempner Water Supply and Jarrell-Schwertner Water Supply in the event its current water supply goes awry.
“We have an inner-connection — a pipe is hooked up to our system and to the other system — so if ours goes out of whack, all I have to do is open a valve, and they send me water,” said Ricky Preston, general manager of Salado Water Supply Corporation. Preston said an inner-connection, or backup source, could have saved the town of Marlin a lot of trouble when crisis struck that city.
“Marlin didn’t really have a backup source,” Preston said. “They talked about putting in a pipeline as a temporary fix — that’s what we have already in the ground. We have it so that if something does happen, we don’t have to wait to get another pipeline.”
In November, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality cited Marlin for 13 major violations and required the city to issue a boil water notice.
The water crisis in Marlin, city officials said, was partially due to long-term maintenance failures. These maintenance failures decimated the town’s water supply during the peak holiday season — a crucial time for the retail and service industry.
Salado is one of the only cities in the area with an emergency pipeline source of water. Preston said due to the fragility of ground water, it’s always good to be prepared.
“It can happen, so you have to be ready,” he said. “We try to be more prepared in case of an emergency — if God forbid something were to happen to that aquifer.”
Bell County Emergency Management Coordinator Michael Harmon said in the event of a worst-case scenario, he would utilize his local connections to provide water before seeking help from state agencies.
“We would work with private sector vendors in the area to get us bulk or bottled water as soon as possible,” Harmon said.
Next, Harmon said, he would seek the help of a nearby dairy association to transport bulk water.
“There aren’t a lot of dedicated bulk water carriers in the state,” he said, “but there are quite a few dairy tankers.”
After local resources were exhausted, he said, then he would seek help from the disaster district in Waco — his first point of contact for state assistance.
“Waco would then coordinate with the state operations center in Austin to see about bringing whatever resources might be needed,” he said. “If people are without water, we will do whatever we can do to assist them to rectify the problem. Few things are more essential than water.”
Local water officials said a number of water challenges remain. Water rights, conservation education, growth needs, water quality and infrastructure are all topics of concern when looking at the future of water in our area.
Copperas Cove Public Works Director Daryl Uptmore said meeting needs related to population growth will be one of the biggest challenges.
Harker Heights’ main concern is water rights.
“The biggest challenges we foresee are counties and cities located out of our watershed competing with our local cities for raw water rights in Lake Belton and lake Stillhouse Hollow,” said Mark Hyde, Harker Heights public works director.
“Antiquated infrastructure” is a top concern of Florence, according to city secretary Amy Crane, who said that the city relies on four water wells — two of which are currently not operational.
“I believe every community is going to face challenges for supply and demand in years to come in this area,” Crane said.
Although lake levels in and around Austin are the highest residents have seen in years, the city of Austin has taken a progressive approach to water conservation. Since 2011, Austin has successfully decreased residential and commercial water usage while maintaining a Stage 2 conservation status — which limits non-essential watering to once a week.
“If you look at our water use over the last five years, it’s gone down dramatically,” said Austin Water spokeswoman Jill Mayfield. “We feel like if we hadn’t done something so drastic like the Stage 2, the lakes were dangerously low, but it would’ve been much worse.”
Austin may propose this spring to keep current conservation efforts in place for the near future, Mayfield said.
“Central Texas is growing and we need to be very mindful of how we use water now and in the future,” she said. “We need to have a reliable resource, so we need to act sustainably so that water source is with us into the distant future.”
Salado, Fort Hood and Killeen officials said water conservation education is one of the largest water challenges the three cities face.
“Water is not here forever, we have to protect what we got,” said Salado’s Preston. “That’s the challenge, because a lot of people don’t see the importance of water conservation.”
Water Watch team members contributed to this report.
- Reporters: Lauren Dodd, Clay Thorp, Rachael Riley, Holden Wilen, Jacob Brooks, David A. Bryant, JC Jones, Artie Phillips
- Graphic artist: Renee Blue
- Photographer: Eric J. Shelton
- Designer: Ellen Villeneuve
- Editor: Rose Fitzpatrick
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