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Amid historic drought, one North Texas city is on the verge of running out of water

Gunter, Texas — a town of 2,500 north of Dallas — relies on three wells, two of which have been broken for a month. After increasingly tightening lawn-watering restrictions, the city warned its residents on Wednesday that they could be out of water by the following morning.

“Due to excessive water consumption, the City’s water storage tanks are unable to refill,” the notice said. It directed residents to stop all outdoor watering and cut down on indoor water use including washing dishes or clothes, showering and other “nonessential” water use.

By Friday morning, Gunter had avoided disaster, but bans on water use were still in place while contractors worked to fix the town’s wells. Gunter’s water shortage comes as large parts of the West are struggling with a drought that scientists have called the worst in 1,200 years. Towns from Texas to California have put in water restrictions, while ranchers are selling cattle they can no longer feed because their crops have dried up.

“We’re just taking it hour by hour and day by day,” city manager Rick Chaffin told CBS MoneyWatch, adding that contractors were working on the wells “as we speak.”

Chaffin said he was “cautiously optimistic” the city might pull through, as long as residents continued to conserve water until the middle of next week, when a second well is expected to be repaired.

Gunter, Texas,

2 of 3 wells broken under strain of use

Gunter receives water from three wells, which have broken intermittently amid higher than usual use, Chaffin said.

“People are using well water to water their lawns now, because the rain is not providing water,” he said.

The wells “were designed to run 50%-60% of the time, and they were running continuously,” he added. “Kind of like when you run your air conditioner all the time — eventually it’s going to break.”

Currently, only the downtown well — the smallest of the three — is operating. Repairs on a second well are expected to be done by the middle of next week, the city said. It’s unknown when the largest well will be repaired.

But many residents are smarting after being told they can’t water lawns while local businesses like restaurants and car washes are allowed to keep running.

“Apparently the car wash does NOT fall under ‘Every drop Counts,'” local resident Thomas Stratton Berry said in the town’s Facebook group. “We need to know why the wells have had mechanical issues over the years and why there hasn’t been a preventative measure put in place.”

Gunter has asked surrounding towns for help, and said it had mutual aid agreements with neighboring fire departments in case of a fire emergency — a situation made more likely by extreme heat and drought.

In the meantime, local businesses have pitched in to help, distributing 100 cases of bottled water over the past two days, according to Brandy Cochran, president of the Gunter Chamber of Commerce. “We’ve never been to the point where we’ve had this extreme of an issue with the water wells” in the 13 years she’s lived in the town, Cochran said.

In neighboring Sherman, 903 Brewers paused beer-making for several days to pitch in to relief efforts. The brewery canned more than 20,000 cans of water from a local spring and plans to drive it to Gunter city hall for emergency distribution. “We stopped brewing and stopped canning beer — it’s all hands on deck,” said owner Jeremy Roberts.

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“It’s been over 100 degrees over the last 30 days. And we haven’t gotten any rain. So people are under a lot of strain,” the 43-year-old added.

Development issues

“It’s a bad idea to build a city on three wells,” Chaffin, the city manager, told CBS MoneyWatch. Gunter has grown substantially in recent years, fueled by transplants from other states, and that has added to the challenge.

Chaffin said he empathized with residents’ frustration, writing a letter of apology Thursday.

“I totally, completely empathize with it. People expect basic services,” he said. “”We’re an evolving, growing city, and we’re not quite as sophisticated, in many ways, as the large cities are.”

He said city officials were developing a plan to shore up Gunter’s water supply in future years as it prepares for explosive growth, although he declined to discuss details, citing ongoing negotiations.

The city of 2,500 is set to grow by more than 100,000 new residents in coming years, with 44,000 new homes already approved for development, he noted.

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