Water sources are getting low, and things are likely to get worse before they get better.

“If we get to no rainfall, that translates to no inflow into the lakes. You can conserve to heart’s content, and the level will still fall,” North Texas Municipal Water District Executive Director Jim Parks told the Rockwall City Council on Monday. “We’ll have to start monitoring the lake level on a daily basis and limit the flow to cities.”

The National Drought Mitigation Center lists Northeast Texas among the driest areas in the nation and predicts conditions will persist or possibly worsen. The National Weather Service predicts less than normal rainfall for at least a year.

“Maybe we can all get out and do a rain dance or something,” said Tony Santoro, Rockwall Fire Department public educator.

The drought area includes major water supplies for North Texas Municipal Water District — Lake Lavon, Cooper Lake and Lake Texoma. Lavon is more than 10 feet low, Cooper nearly 13 feet and Texoma more than 4 feet.

“It doesn’t sound like much, but a lake is shaped like this,” NTMWD Executive Assistant Mike Rickman said, forming his hands into a V. “The further down you go, the less you have.”

Last year wasn’t quite a record year for lack of rainfall, but it was close — 2005 was the second driest year since 1950. Lake Lavon sees an average of about 40 inches a year; 2005 only dropped 19.11 inches.

Cooper is low enough the district will have to dredge to get water out, something it has only had to do once before.

Texoma isn’t as low as the other two lakes, but it has a much higher salt content and NTMWD can only use so much from the lake, which must be mixed with higher-quality water. Desalinization is still too expensive to be a viable alternative, Rickman said, and no one has figured out what to do with the briny water that is discharged from the process.

Not that Texoma is quite as salty as the Gulf of Mexico; it’s just not as high quality as what people are accustomed to. In the 1950s, the city of Dallas had to pump water in straight from the Red River. A that time, oil companies were discharging brine directly into the river, Parks said.

There is some cause for hope once rain picks up again. Lavon hit its lowest level in November 1996, and the lake was at flood stage by January.

NTMWD hopes to have its East Fork Reuse Project online by 2008. The project, which will use a manmade wetland area to filter “gray” water, would supply as much water as Lake Lavon. More water should be available though water purchases from Lake Tawakoni and Lake Fork by 2010. The district also plans to purchase more water rights to Lake Texoma. There is still fresh water coming in to Lavon to mix with Texoma water, Rickman said.

North Texas initiated Stage 1 of its water conservation plan in October. As the drought progressed to a more moderate severity, Stage 2 was implemented in January. Both stages include voluntary conservation methods, such as alternate days for landscape watering. As the drought persists, however, mandatory conservation steps are likely.

The restrictions can be tailored to meet the area’s needs, Rickman said.

“We try to pick options that will not harm people’s livelihoods,” he said.

Stage 3 of the drought plan, expected in March, could prohibit things such as hosing of paved areas and buildings, operation of ornamental fountains, washing vehicles via hose and municipal landscape watering. The goal is to reduce water consumption by 5 percent or more.

Stage 4 is expected by this summer. It could prohibit golf course watering except for greens and tee boxes, washing of vehicles, filling of private pools and landscape watering except for two hours allowed to water foundations. Both the latter two stages also include surcharges for those who use too much water. The goal is to reduce water consumption by 10 percent or more.

“This gets to where it’s an actual emergency. The lakes are way low,” Rickman said. “You’re going to impact business. There’s no way around it.”

NTMWD is working on an information model to help provide information about future scenarios. That information will take about a month to fully develop.

“I’m not sure our community is aware of the seriousness of this,” Mayor Bill Cecil said. “This is a matter of concern.”

Public education is paramount to conservation, Rickman said. NTMWD plans to use Tuerff-Davis EnviroMedia, the firm that created the “Don’t Mess With Texas” anti-littering campaign, to develop a public education campaign. The campaign budget is projected at $5.4 million for the next three years.

Rockwall is working on its own public education plan.

“People are going to have to realize what the situation is,” Santoro said. “That comes down to education.”

The fire department plans to post banners around town. Santoro has developed a chart with numbers in colored blocks that indicate the water levels in Lake Lavon that trigger another stage in conservation. An arrow to one side shows the current level. Once people understand the chart and how it works, it will help them understand where things stand and what’s coming next, he said.

Other education tools could include door hangers to let people know if their irrigation systems are wasting water, such as broken sprinkler heads or heads spraying water the wrong way.

“You’ve heard the bad news. Let’s get the word out about how people can help,” Santoro said. “If I can get 10,000 people to save 1,000 gallons a week, I’d rather do that than have 500 people who go out and buy washing machines that save 500 gallons a month.”

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