Heat, drought leave Texas towns going dry

ROBERT LEE, Texas — Ranchers in pickup trucks here stop to ladle up puddles of street water after underground pipes crack, and wilting trees are quenched with dirty bathwater hauled from tubs to front yards. An April storm teased Robert Lee, but instead of rain, a lightning strike started a wildfire that chewed up 169,000 drought-starved acres.

"We can't catch a break," said Eddie Ray Roberts, the city's water superintendent.

The worst Texas drought since the 1950s has this ranching town of nearly 1,110 residents, and a handful of other cities, facing a prospect they've never encountered before: running out of water.

Many lakes and reservoirs across the state are badly depleted after more than a month of 100-degree temperatures and less than 1 inch of rain. Robert Lee's water supply lake is fast becoming a mud hole. The worst-off communities are already trying to run pipes to distant water lines, drilling emergency wells and banning water use for virtually anything beyond drinking, bathing and keeping businesses working.

"We've certainly seen a broader use of those plans over a larger portion of the state than we ever have before," said Andrea Morrow, a spokeswoman for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Worst-case scenarios have a few towns running out of water in a matter of months. Although Texas cities have gone bone-dry before — country star Billy Ray Cyrus sent a truck of bottled water to Throckmorton when the town tapped out in 2000 — the nearly 500 water systems statewide now under some mandatory restrictions appear unprecedented.

The prospect of no water is a cruel irony for Robert Lee, which was proclaimed the county seat in 1891 because its water supply was so plentiful. The town's water source, Lake E.V. Spence, normally covers more than 22 square miles and made Robert Lee a popular boating getaway.

The town's desperate straits have extinguished any Texas-friendly, we're-in-this-together spirit among neighboring cities: Robert Lee is pumping Lake Spence around the clock to move what little water is left into an exclusive reservoir, in what is practically a game of keep-away. Once the water is transferred, engineers expect the town to have enough through at least the spring.