Texas drought leaves lake too low for cities' use

October 13, 2011 - 6:45 PM

FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — The devastating drought has taken its toll on a Texas Panhandle lake, now too low to keep supplying water to nearly a dozen cities.

The Canadian River Municipal Water Authority near Amarillo voted to stop using Lake Meredith, which had been a water source since the 1960s.

The water authority's half-million customers are not likely to notice the effects of Wednesday's vote until next summer, said Kent Satterwhite, the authority's general manager. Although the lone remaining water supply is plentiful, the peak demand may put stress on its delivery, he said.

This year the lake's water, for the first time, was pumped for cities' use only from June through August instead of year-round because water levels dropped to a record low — just under 31 feet, Satterwhite said. The record high level was nearly 102 feet in 1973.

"The surface area is only a small fraction of what it used to be," Satterwhite said Thursday, adding that only one boat ramp remains open. "From my house, I can't see the water anymore."

The U.S. Drought Monitor map released Thursday shows 73.1 percent of the state in the exceptional range, down from 87.9 percent last week. But much of the Panhandle remains in the most severe drought stage because it did not get as much rainfall that fell across other parts of Texas the past week.

The state is in its worst single-year drought. And the rainfall probability is below normal for the state, including the Panhandle, for the next three months, said Victor Murphy, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Fort Worth.

The Canadian River Municipal Water Authority's remaining water source is the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the world's largest.

The authority had already been pumping water into wells from that Roberts County aquifer for its customers. Then in June, the authority bought water rights beneath 211,000 acres for $103 million from billionaire oilman T. Boone Pickens and his Mesa Water Inc.

The purchase involved about 4 trillion gallons of water, "enough to last us 130 years," Satterwhite said. But the 48-mile pipeline from wells in Roberts County to Amarillo and Lubbock and Lamesa — and several cities in between — is not large enough to meet increased summer demands, he said.

Building a bigger pipeline is too costly to be an option right now, he said. Some cities might impose water restrictions next summer to help conserve.

Although Lake Meredith is expected to continue drying up, Satterwhite said it could be used as a water source in the future.

"There are so many variables, but one good storm could just change everything for us," he said. "We're hopeful, but I wouldn't say optimistic."