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July 29, 2011

City water supply OK

Despite lack of rain Lake Palo Pinto still 3 feet above first conservation stage.

By Chris Agee | cagee@mineralwellsindex.com

The city of Mineral Wells, which relies on Lake Palo Pinto for its water supply, still enjoys a relatively good water level, according to City Manager Lance Howerton.

As of Thursday, he said, the lake is three feet below its peak level of 867 feet.

Though diminished, that level remains three feet higher than the threshold of 861 feet, which would trigger a voluntary restriction of water usage.

“For this time of year and given the weather conditions, we feel we’re in excellent shape,” Howerton said.

Currently, the city has not called for residents to restrict water usage, though officials continue to keep a close watch on water levels, he said.

“Based on what we’re seeing at the lake presently ... possibly we could be in stage one of our drought contingency plan in September or October,” he said, clarifying that, even in that case, water restriction would be voluntary.

Despite the city’s situation, Howerton said the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is taking a more hands-on approach to monitoring water availability than in years past and could possibly issue a widespread suspension of water rights.

“They have taken this step already in the Brazos River Basin,” he said. “I’m not familiar with them doing that in the past.”

At this point, there are no mandates for municipalities to ration water usage, though “the possibility exists that TCEQ could compel certain levels of drought contingency actions to be taken throughout the state,” Howerton said.

Current studies show the region’s rainfall is more than 11 inches below average, which has contributed to a drastic decrease in ground water levels.

If rainfall does not replenish depleted aquifers, experts say even communities not using well water will feel the effects.

According to Dr. Bob Patterson, general manager of Upper Trinity Groundwater Conservation District, reduced ground water levels already affect communities relying on well water.

When levels reach a certain low point, though, he said water supply will suffer no matter the source.

“In the last quarter, we have seen as much as a 20-foot drop in the water levels in the aquifers,” Patterson said, adding that reduction is four times higher than in a typical summer.

The problem has been exacerbated during an unusually hot and dry summer, he said, but the current situation was set in motion several months ago.

“Most of the time [aquifers recharge] during the fall and winter time,” Patterson explained. “This year, we had no recharge.”

In the end, he said, all water sources can be traced back to aquifers, which means both supply and quality will likely suffer without an influx of rain.

“To be sure, the lakes and aquifers are all hydraulically connected,” Patterson said, “and with adequate flows, it fills them up.”

He said levels naturally even out through typical season changes but, in years such as this, a domino effect can lead to critical conditions.

“When you do not have a good recharge, of course it affects the aquifer directly,” Patterson said, “but it very definitely affects lake and river water.”

In certain cases, such as in one area between Weatherford and Granbury, natrual gas can enter the water supply in addition to mineral such as sulphur and iron because, Patterson explained, “water moves to lower pressure areas just like gas does.”

Many factors contribute to the level of ground water, according to District Conservationist Myron Merz of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, though an extended drought and hot summer have combined to create a major drop in the amount of water available to residents in the county.

“We’re kind of limited anyway in Palo Pinto County,” Merz said, adding the county has a minimal number of minor aquifers available to provide a constant water source.

In a normal year, factors such as oil and gas exploration and natural resources used by the region’s high levels of brush can drain water levels, though Merz said this year the situation is worse.

He said his agency focuses on water levels as they affect livestock, adding many reserve tanks have dried up in the area because of the limited water supply.

Another side effect of reduced ground water levels is decreased water purity, Merz said.

“Any time the water level goes down like that, all the minerals are more concentrated,” he noted.

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