Lake Palo Pinto drying up

This drone image shows a drying up Lake Palo Pinto in 2015. The lake reached 8 percent capacity during the severe drought before rains came and filled it back up within days.

Before one of the worst droughts on record ended in the summer of 2015, Lake Palo Pinto was down to 8 percent capacity and Palo Pinto County Municipal Water District No. 1 and Mineral Wells officials implemented emergency steps to ensure water delivery for the 35,000 served in Palo Pinto and Parker counties.

Almost as soon as a $3 million expenditure was made to begin installing a reverse osmosis plant to draw and blend water from the Brazos River, the drought broke almost overnight, refilling the lake within a matter of a few days.

That is the most example of the problems with relying on Lake Palo Pinto, and Mother Nature, to handle this area’s water supply needs not only today but for decades to come.

The water district hosted a public meeting Thursday evening at the Palo Pinto County Sheriff’s Posse Building to provide an update on the progress of the long-planned and soon-to-be-under-construction Turkey Peak Reservoir.

Cory Shockley, an engineer with HDR of Austin that is overseeing the project, called that nearly three-year drought the worst in the last 80 years of local hydrological data. The drought began not long after rains earlier in 2012 had water lapping over the lake’s spillway.

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Cory Shockley of HDR

Engineer Cory Shockley of HD, overseeing development of the Turkey Peak water reservoir, provides a project history and update during a public meeting Thursday at the Palo Pinto County Sheriff's Posse Building.

“That was the most severe drought we have seen in that watershed,” Shockley said.

Mineral Wells once relied on Lake Mineral Wells, built in 1917, to deliver water to residents. But it was too small and an alternative source was needed. The Texas Legislature created the local water district in 1961, and in 1962 authorization was given to begin building the dam on Palo Pinto Creek near Santo to create the reservoir and lake.

However, designed to hold 29,000 acre feet, the lake ended up holding about 27,000 acre feet. It is wide and fairly shallow with an average depth of 13 feet, and is susceptible to large amounts of evaporation under the Texas summer sun, both within the reservoir and during its long journey to the Hilltop Water Treatment plant.

Shockley said a 1985 sedimentation survey showed Lake Palo Pinto could store just 64 percent of its permitted capacity.

While modest growth is forecast for Palo Pinto County over the next half century, Parker County is projected to explode from about 120,000 people today to 600,000 people or more by 2070. About 40 percent of the county is currently served by the water district.

“Some customers are already asking for more water,” Shockley said. “It is obvious the population is moving this way.”

The water district provides water for two cities, including Mineral Wells and its population of around 16,500 people, two special utility districts, five water supply corporations and one industrial client – Brazos Electric Power Coop.

Planning for a second reservoir dates as far back as 1979. It has been over the last two decades that those efforts were ramped up to identify how, where, how big and at what costs.

Once completed, Turkey Peak will increase water storage capacity by 83 percent, going from 27,000 acre feet now to nearly 50,000 acre feet combined when both reservoirs are full.

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Turkey Peak Reservoir Map

This map shows the location of the Turkey Peak reservoir below and adjoining the present Lake Palo Pinto west of Santo off FM Road 4.

Shockley said rather than being down to about 60 days of water supply in the lake at the height of the 2015 drought, Turkey Peak would have provided an additional two years of water supply.

A design advantage of Turkey Peak is that it will be constructed in a deep canyon with a much smaller surface area than Lake Palo Pinto, which means less evaporation than the current lake experiences. Turkey Peak will have an average lake depth of 35 feet. It will also reduce the travel of water to the city plant by four miles, further reducing some of the current loss.

While the area’s population steadily grows, increasing demand, Shockley said data shows individual customers are using less water.

“People are more conscious of their water use,” he said.

The project earlier this year cleared its last major hurdle with issuance of its federal construction permit. Next steps in the process are the land acquisitions, finalizing required mitigation efforts to offset the additional capture and storage of water, performing environmental samplings and completing the final design of the dam with its multi-level outlet tower.

“Unfortunately we don’t have a final cost on the project,” Shockley said. “We are still in the process of a final design for the dam.”

Previous estimates have put the final cost between $90 million and $100 million. To date $25 million has been spent on design, study and permitting costs, with about 30 percent of coming in the form of federal and state water grants. Those final cost estimates will determine future water rate cost increases for customers in the system.

Shockley discussed other options previously explored to increase water storage. Several locations were considered for a second reservoir but were deemed less efficient financially based on capacity gains and delivery requirements. He said dredging Lake Palo Pinto when it was nearly empty would have cost millions of dollars while recapturing perhaps just 2,000 acre feet of water.

Turkey Peak was determined to be the best option from a capacity and cost ratio while meeting future demand, Shockley said. He said Palo Pinto Creek will continue to perform as it does today once the new reservoir is online. Construction could begin within the coming year and take three-to-four years to complete.

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Dr. David Turk

Dr. David Turk, president of the Palo Pinto County Municipal Water District No.1, opens Thursday's meeting to provide a Turkey Peak water reservoir project history and update at the Palo Pinto County Sheriff's Posse Building.

Acquisition of one parcel of land needed for the project has been completed, Shockley said. He said the property owners involved are overall supportive of the project.

“They just wish it wasn’t on their property,” he said.

Officials at the meeting Thursday were unable to some how much acreage is needed for the project, including the area that will inundated and what is needed for the conservation pool and land upstream and downstream of the project, or how many property owners are involved. One estimate given was around 16 property owners, and officials said they would review that information and provide it.

Mayor Christopher Perricone asked about losses of water in the city, which data suggests is as much as 17 percent of treated water coming from the plant. This comes as the result of the aged and failed infrastructure in the city. That is an issue – and cost – for local officials and residents to consider remedying.

For more information and future updates about Turkey Peak, go to www.turkeypeakreservoir.com.

Currently the general manager and editor for the Mineral Wells Index, I have worked as a writer/editor/photojournalist since the late 1980s.