Now it is getting scary: Stage 3 water restrictions?

I’m originally from the Midwest, so I’ve never heard of this until I moved to Texas, and I have not, in 30+ years of living here, seen Stage 3 water restrictions until this past summer.  Stage 3 means we are nearing the point that we don’t have enough water to drink.  It means no washing your car, in your driveway or at a car wash.  No refilling a swimming pool, public or private.  No water fountains.  No landscape watering.  And it applies to individuals and businesses.  This didn’t occur directly because of our drought conditions.  The city I live in gets it’s water from about 50 miles away, from a place called Stillhouse Hollow Lake (important point here….there is only 1 natural lake in Texas, everything else is a reservoir, but anything bigger than a pothole full of water is called a lake.)  The main pumps decided to fail during Stage 2 water restrictions.  Stage 2 basically means you can only water 2 days per week during certain hours.  When the pumps failed, we immediately went to Stage 3.  It lasted about 3 weeks.

Well, weather conditions still suck.  We are projected to be both warmer than normal and drier than normal for the next month.  If that happens, our reservoirs, er, I mean lakes, will all be so low that we will move to Stage 3.  We had less than half our normal rainfall in 2011, and we are 23 INCHES below normal over the last 14 months.  It could take us 5 years of normal rainfall to refill our lakes, if we are lucky.

I’m a bit ahead of the game.  I’ve got some rainwater collection (never enough, of course).  And 3 years ago, we removed about 6,500 square feet of our lawn.  ZERO grass.  We covered everything with about 8 inches of city-supplied shredded tree mulch, then planted as many native plants as we could.  We installed irrigation that watered only those plants.    Everything else….well, it makes it or it doesn’t. We drip irrigate our veggie garden (58 feet X 42 feet), and hand water most everything else.  Our garden is feeding us pretty well, the front landscape looks better every year, and everything else looks like prairie.

Trust me, I am NOT gloating.  I’m scared.  A couple of cities had gone to Stage 4 last year.  The only water they had was for drinking.  Seriously.  Bathing, washing dishes or clothes, even flushing a toilet required making serious choices.  It was so bad, water was trucked in.

Stage 3 is bad, but someone had enough common sense to allow water for food.  Not landscape, food.  But I live in a city that, when I moved here in ’85, had 13,000 residents.  The last census says somewhere around 120,000.  So, more than 100,000 people have moved here in less than 25 years.  I swear all of them have big, green, water-hogging turf lawns.   Lots of baseball and football fields.  A green lawn is right up there with owning a gun (Texas, remember?).  

It could be worse, but the silly thing is, it could be so much better with simple choices.  Our most common turf is also the worst water hog of the available turfs for our area.  We plant stuff that NEVER grew in Texas.  We use watering systems that spray water into the air, wasting about 30% of it before it ever hits the ground.  We water during the hottest hours, more often than we should, and let it run off the ground to be wasted down the drain.

Lets top it off with one more terrible thought.  In an average year, with average rainfall, there are only two months of the year where the water that falls from the sky is greater than the water that evaporates from the ground, rivers and lakes.  Read that carefully.  We have months where, if one inch of rain falls from the sky, MORE than one inch of rain evaporates from the surface.   Check out this chart from the Texas Water Development Board:

We take water for granted here in Texas.  It is estimated that 30% of our water is used to keep our grass green.  Seriously?  We had parts of Texas last year that could only flush  their toilet once a day.  We had farmers lose half their crop (or more) from lack of rain. Is that green lawn really that important?

The only saving grace in this terrible mess is that it is not only possible, but easy AND money saving to fix the problem.  This is not a technical problem.

Since starting this post, the NOAA weather projections (one step above placing an infinite number of chimpanzees with a dart in front on an infinite number of dart boards) for the next 30, 90, and 180 days show warmer than normal and drier than normal.  The best long-term projection shows that we’ll have this pattern until August of 2012.  This is after a historical-record warmest AND driest year ever recorded in Texas.  Maybe, just maybe, the desire for the classic green lawn can become as rare as the rain.

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About Jeff

A 30-year Central Texas gardener, an instructor of gardening and urban farming in the Continuing Education program with Austin Community College, holder of a Permaculture Design Certificate and operator of Wild Plum Valley Farm, an attempt to turn an urban acre of land into a more self-sufficient homestead without breaking my back or the bank. And Jeff is forever grateful to his beautiful and loving wife Lori. Too many times, the word "I" is used when it couldn't have been done without her.
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