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Texas Town Struggles with Water Shortage - 2003-02-19

Like cities throughout the drought-stricken American west, San Angelo, in central Texas, is trying to figure out how to provide more water to its residents. One solution city officials are working on is to buy water rights from rural landowners upstream. That would allow river water that's now diverted to irrigate crops to flow downstream into the city. But many farmers don't want to sell. So officials are considering a radical move, condemning water rights, forcing landowners to sell.

The city of San Angelo is in trouble. Last year it got 35 centimeters of rain - well below normal. If dry conditions persist, officials say the city's 88,000 residents will be turning on dry taps in a year and a half. Already, most of the reservoirs are nearly empty. "Here you can see how the dam stretches for miles and miles around but the actual quantity of water is quite small," said City Manager Tom Adams.

City Manager Tom Adams stands on top of the dam that surrounds the O.C. Fisher reservoir. Just a couple of years ago, it was a main source of drinking water for San Angelo, but today, the only water you can see looks like a large puddle. "Unless we get some kind of rain or inflow, evaporation can eat that up pretty quickly," he said.

As city officials consider ways to increase San Angelo's water supply, Mr. Adams says they're looking up-stream, where farmers use a lot of water to irrigate their crops. "We're looking at buying those water rights where it's now being used for irrigation and agricultural purposes and get that to flow downstream," said Tom Adams.

But many farmers don't want to sell their water rights. "This water to me is my livelihood," said Kent Schwartz.

Kent Schwartz stands next to the South Concho River, which he uses to irrigate his 22 hectares of wheat and vegetables. "When I bought this farm I envisioned my five-year-old son getting it and farming the land and working the land with him and you sell the water my dreams for him are gone and for maybe his kids are gone and once it's gone it's gone forever," he said.

So city officials are quietly discussing a controversial option: condemnation. A 1931 state law allows municipalities to acquire surface water rights. Officials say the process is similar to what happens when the government takes private property for, say, highway construction. City Manager Tom Adams explains, the city would pay landowners for the water rights and resulting agricultural losses. Then the landowners would have to hand those rights over to San Angelo. "Cities must have that ability even if by condemnation to obtain those resources in order to take care of some of those priorities," Mr. Adams said.

City officials stress that condemnation is a last resort and they'd prefer that landowners sell willingly. Still, many farmers are furious that the city is even contemplating the idea and resent being blamed for the water crisis. Some, like Kent Schwartz, complain that while they've installed water-saving irrigation equipment, San Angelo does little to crack down on residents who waste water. "So the city basically has done zero for water conservation but yet they're wanting to get our water from what we've tried to save and take it away from us," he said.

In 2000, the last year statistics were available, San Angelo ranked ninth out of 40 Texas cities in per capita water usage. Yet Tom Adams defends the city. He says, in the last five years, it's introduced tough water restrictions and replaced leaky pipes. As a result, he says, water usage dropped 25 percent. He has no sympathy for farmers who won't sell.

While some give lip service to trying to save the river from the big bad city if you will they are not doing their part to save the river if they're pumping water out.

As rural landowners and city officials continue this tug-of-war over the precious resource, supporters of the right to condemn say the city has more at stake. San Angelo residents make up 85 percent of the county's total population. Former mayor Dick Funk says it's a matter of the few sacrificing water for the many. "For the greater good of all society, is it better to have a city here with water or people out here siphoning it out of the river and the city dry up," asked Dick Funk. "I mean what would they do if the city went away?"

Currently, San Angelo is appraising water rights in the area, but some experts say that won't be easy. The water market is not well-established and the price can vary widely from one place to another. A state court would have to approve the condemnation, but rural landowners say before it comes to that, they'll sue San Angelo if the city tries to take away their water rights.