Parched Texas town seeks emergency relief from drought
No one drinks the tap water, which is unbearably briny as the lake dries up.
After one of the hottest summers on record, the lake that is the lone water supply and main recreational draw in this tiny West Texas town is more than 99 percent empty. Robert Lee, which is a two-hour drive east of Midland, has received only about six inches of rainfall this year, half the normal amount.
It is the worst water stitch the town has been in at least since the lake, E.V. Spence Reservoir, was created in the 1960s by damming a portion of the Colorado River.
More water is on the way, but it will only be enough to meet the basic needs of the town of 1,049 and will come at the expense of yet another sizable water rate increase.
Residents are looking forward to improved palatability and a more stable supply because Spence -- which is usually 21 times the size of the entire area of Robert Lee, but now not much bigger than a pond -- withers away.
"It tastes ugly and it stinks," said Delfino Navarro, a mechanic and handyman at a local car dealership, who stood on his browning front lawn on a recent afternoon with a bottle of water in hand. "You can't drink that water or you'll get sick."
Navarro, who has lived in Robert Lee for more than 30 years, said he does not have the means to skip town but he knows of people who are planning to leave or who have left.
After the driest year in state recorded history, most Texas municipalities still have plenty, if less, water. But the plight of Robert Lee has become a reminder of the havoc an extreme or prolonged drought can wreak, as well as how dependent many towns are on rainfall for drinking water and how precarious it is to maintain a healthy supply without it.
"I grew up here and we've always had water situations," said Robert Lee Mayor John Jacobs, 65. "You live in the desert, you're going to be short of water at times and always it would rain and you would get out of it."
Like other West Texas towns, many of which are dependent on surface water supplies that evaporate at a startling rate in hot, dry conditions, Robert Lee has seen its water supply fluctuate over the decades as droughts have come and gone.
"Spence seemed to be a limitless supply," said Kyle Long, who has lived in Robert Lee for more than 30 years. "Just goes to show you that drought can do a lot of things."
The town has suffered from some form of water restrictions for more than two years. Just before summer began, it banned all outdoor water use and asked residents to cut usage.
Photo shows a view of the dry bed of the E.V. Spence Reservoir in Robert Lee, Texas October 28, 2011. Credit: REUTERS/Callie Richmond