Persistent drought is forcing the Brown County Water Improvement District No. 1 to make major expenditures in search of groundwater to supplement dwindling supplies from Lake Brownwood.

It's not the first time BCWID Director Stuart Coleman has seen a crisis prompt the district to make substantial investments to ensure the community has the water it needs.

“I hate to spend $700,300 to drill a well, but we’ve got to do that,” Coleman said of the board’s decision to begin exploring for underground water to supplement Lake Brownwood. “We’ve got to find something that will work for us. We’re drilling down to the Ellenberger and Hickory aquifers, and water from those two should be able to clean up.”

Drilling by Stewart Brothers Drilling of New Mexico began last week at a site off Corrigan Avenue, just southeast of Brownwood’s city limits.

Brown County residents may soon face unprecedented water use restrictions along with permanent changes in their sources of water as drought continues to take its toll on Lake Brownwood. In some ways, the challenges confronting the district today are reminiscent of a crisis in 1977 that also led to major investments by the water district.

“But that was a totally different situation,” Harry Miller Jr. of Brownwood, former district manager of the Brown County Water Improvement District No. 1, said this week. And it’s a difference with several distinctions.

Early Saturday morning on Sept. 10, 1977, officials at the water district filtration plant saw the steady flow of raw water arriving from Lake Brownwood quickly fall to a trickle, according to reports published in the Brownwood Bulletin.

Miller, who retired from the water district in 2002, was serving as Brownwood’s city manager 36 years ago when a section of the aqueduct carrying lake water into town collapsed.

One difference in the situation the community faced then and the one it has now is its cause. The shortage in 1977 was not the result of a dwindling supply of water in the lake, as is the case today, but rather from a break in the open-air, gravity flow canal that carried water from the Lake Brownwood dam to the district’s treatment plant at Round Mountain, west of the city.

Another difference is that the city was not in a position to enforce conservation mandates.

“We had no policy then,” Miller said. Instead, the city and the district used the media to implore residents to limit water use to the minimum needed for sanitation. Several industries suspended operations for a few days after the call to minimize usage went public.

A scramble to restore flow

H.E. Hanks, water plant superintendent in 1977, told a Bulletin reporter that after a temporary fix to the canal was completed over the weekend, the treatment plant had enough supply to process 3.6 million gallons of water between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. the Monday after the break. That compared to a typical output of 7 million gallons in a 24-hour period at that time of year.

The weekend production of less than 2 million gallons — from raw water that had been captured at the plant’s storage before the break — was described as the smallest output plant operators had seen. Hanks said demand on the hottest summer days could reach 10-12 million gallons.

“The water plant manager called me so the city could make plans,” Miller recalled. “I do remember temporary materials were obtained to bypass the break.”

 “I drove by it, that’s how I found out about it,” said Bill Bell, who in 1977 was serving with Stuart Coleman on the water district board. “It took a lot of local effort to repair it. We used water district employees. Perhaps the biggest contribution came from Driscopipe,” the Brownwood plant now known as Performance Pipe. Bell said the company “provided a large pipe and fuser, which joined the sections of the pipe together.”

A temporary fix that kept water flowing at a reduced rate for almost a week involved four smaller pipelines, including one from a pond at Whiskey Hollow, the Bulletin reported in 1977. But even after the patch allowed flow to resume, it took 11 hours for water to make the trip to the plant, then another four hours to treat, the news report stated.

Bell left the board and became general counsel for the water district, a position he held until he retired in May this year. Bell said the break destroyed about a 6x6x6-foot area of the canal on the Taber Ranch, which is not far from his own property off of the Lake Dam Road, FM 2125.

Coleman said the crisis in 1977 opened the door to a host of necessary infrastructure improvements, just as the current drought is doing in a different way. He joined the water board in 1976 and has served continuously except for five years after he was appointed to the Texas Water Development Board.

Another distinction in the two situations: The 1977 crisis developed overnight, while the current statewide drought has intensified over several years. The level of Lake Brownwood has been on a decline since 2007, current General Manager Dennis Spinks said.

The water district, along with the municipalities and water supply corporations it serves, have specific drought contingency plans in place, and they are implemented in stages as the level of Lake Brownwood drops. Enforcement is now possible under municipal ordinances, and rural water suppliers have implemented rate structures that boost prices significantly as a customer’s water use increases.

Spinks said last week that Stage 4 restrictions — which could eliminate all outdoor use other than hand watering — could go into effect within weeks.

“We’ve just looked at where we might be, come Oct. 1 without significant rain,” Spinks added. “The lake level then could be at Stage 5.”

Historically, that’s uncharted territory as far as the lake level goes. Stage 5 was added to the plan in April 2012, and it will be triggered if the lake falls to 1,408 feet above sea level — 17 feet below the lake’s spillway level of 1,425. What conservations measures would be required in Stage 5 were not immediately specified.

The Stage 4 trigger is 1,411, and the lake was a little more than one foot above that point last week. Stage 4 requires a 50 percent reduction from current usage.

The area served by the water district has been under Stage 3 restrictions since Sept. 14, 2011. That calls for a 30 percent reduction in water use, which has been accomplished with more moderate restrictions that allow limited outdoor watering. The lake level’s decline is accelerating due to seasonal demand and evaporation, Spinks said. Usage spikes on Mondays and Tuesdays when outdoor watering is permitted on an alternating, address-based schedule — odd Mondays, even Tuesdays.

A series of projects followed

In 1978, Miller left the City of Brownwood to take the position of general manager of the water district. He said while he was still at the city, the district asked him to write two grants for capital improvement projects, including one for an enclosed raw water delivery system that remains in place. All of the treated water distributed by the City of Brownwood is purchased wholesale from the water district.

“I got interested in the work of the water district while writing the grants,” Miller said. Miller served as general manager of the water district for 24 years. The board named its main office at the corner of Carnegie and East Baker the Miller Administration Building in appreciation of his contributions.

“We were dealing with a system that was a total gravity flow,” Miller said. “Another problem was that the inlet (at the dam) wasn’t at the bottom of the lake.” During a year when the lake level dropped, but not to the low levels seen in the past two years, water had to be pumped into the inlet even though supplies were ample.

“It’s entirely different now,” Miller said. “The district installed a new enclosed delivery system.”

Bell gave credit to Joe Swanner, an executive with Brownwood roots in the regional office of the U.S. Small Business Association, with helping secure funding for the enclosed raw water delivery system.

According to the water district’s website, its board approved projects costing more than $17 million in the months that followed. By 1983, the district had authorized a permanent auxiliary pipeline and pump station; dam improvements and outlet works that reinforced and raised the level of the dam; a main gravity pipeline and pump station; and a treatment plant renovation and expansion.

The water district’s website relates that its board held an emergency meeting at 11:30 a.m. Sept. 10, 1977, “to address restoration of service after a catastrophic landslide occurred on the north end of the Taber Ranch. On a hill at this location the base under the district’s delivery aqueduct moved four feet, which resulted in a 500-foot section of the main canal splitting and washing away.”

It took five days to install 400 feet of 36-inch plastic pipe. In the meantime, district pumps moved water around the break through temporary 16-inch butyl tubing “supplying bare minimum needs for Brownwood and Early.”