Victoria battles Mother Nature's drought

By Brian M. Cuaron - BCUARON@VICAD.COM
Aug. 31, 2011 at 3:31 a.m.

Judging by the patches of brown grass on a Victoria house-renter's lawn, you wouldn't think the drought has helped his landscaping efforts.

But for Wade Wedemeier, the heat wave has cut down on his lawn-mowing needs. He has only mowed his lawn twice this year without any signs of overgrowth.

"Yeah, my lawnmower is pretty lonely," Wedemeier said.

Yet the heat has its drawbacks. The walls in Wedemeier's house have cracked, and the surveyor is pushing his company to let him get the work truck's windows tinted.

The electric bill also has been higher thanks to Wedemeier's use of the air conditioner. But don't expect him to turn the AC off - he'd rather cut the cable than his source of coolness.

Welcome to Victoria, summer 2011. Residents, businesses and the city are confronting a drought season that has seen multiple days of triple degree weather.

Streaks of brown grass string around some greens at the Riverside Golf Course. And, judging by a leggy bird walking through it, a creek at the course has only inches of water while a lake at the back has none at all.

The city initiated Stage 2 of its drought contingency plan in June that only allows for irrigation or other uses of water at certain times.

City staff has warned 155 people who have broken the restriction rules and one citation was issued, said Lynn Short, director of public works.

Yet despite record-setting heat levels, Victoria has fared fairly well in terms of drinking water capacity. There is plenty of water 1,000 feet beneath residents.

Victoria stopped drawing from the Guadalupe River as its primary source of water in July because of its low water flow. So the city has turned to the Gulf Coast Aquifer, its primary source before 2001.

Victoria exchanges the aquifer's water with river water because of quality, said Short.

He said the aquifer was huge and didn't see an imminent need to initiate Stage 3 of the city's drought contingency plan.

Stage 3 would restrict residents to irrigating every other day. That would be triggered by the city's water reservoirs falling to 50-percent capacity.

Yet because of the aquifer, the city hasn't needed to rely on its water reservoirs, leaving them almost full. An ongoing study on interconnecting the reservoirs would determine how much water capacity they have.

But while residents may be hydrated, they're finding it harder to keep the lawns green.

"It's a fight. It's a battle against the heat to keep the grass alive," said Greg Hughes, director of golf for the Colony Creek Country Club.

The problem for Hughes and others like him is that nature creates the conditions in this war of irrigation.

Residents were chugging out 16.9 million gallons of water per day this August, Short said. That was 4.4 million gallons more than last year and almost twice as many gallons in 2007.

Short said the increased water usage was related to irrigation.

The dry conditions have also caused water pipes to crack at Hughes' country club. The soil has begun to shrink at an accelerated pace because of moisture evaporation, said Thomas Schmidt, Urban Engineering president.

Even with its own limitless water well, Hughes said, the club can't keep its 18-hole course green. Workers can't let the sprinkler system water 24 hours a day.

"It's rough right now. It's not pretty," said Hughes, chuckling.

And golfers can't play as long as they may like. It took Hughes about four days to recover after playing in the sun at a tournament in Houston a few weeks back.

Yet golf is a luxury. Ranchers in the county aren't so lucky.

Victoria County Commissioner Precinct 3 Gary Burns said ranchers are asking whether to sell or keep their cattle. The lack of grass has forced ranchers to turn to hay that doesn't have as many nutrients, he said.

The problem is that the price for cattle is low. So when the drought is over, a rancher would be forced to buy cows at two to three times higher prices than the rancher sold them for, said Burns, who owns about 70 cows.

"The most common thing I see with everybody is that nobody has the answer," he said.



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