Texas town amazed at help offered to end water woes

THROCKMORTON, Texas - Some people are hoping divine intervention will end the worst drought in this cactus-covered, west Texas town since the 1950s.

But an army of volunteers from nearby rain-blessed areas isn't taking any chances. It has spent the past week in 100-degree-plus temperatures digging a 4-foot-deep trench into the parched landscape. Eventually, that trench will carry a pipeline - and water - to a treatment plant 21 miles away.

Without rain, and without the pipeline, the drinking water will be gone in less than 60 days, says Mayor John Kunkel. No relief was in sight this weekend.

Throckmorton is one of 159 Texas towns and cities with water restrictions. In February, the state declared Throckmorton County and 94 others drought disaster areas.

Even big cities such as Houston are starting to feel the drought's effects. Last week, Houston Mayor Lee Brown asked residents to voluntarily conserve water. On the same day, Galveston residents and businesses were told to cut their water usage. Austin also has enacted strict watering restrictions.

Don Peck, 68, is one of the many volunteers who have come forward to help Throckmorton with its water problems.

''It's a chance to help other people when you know they really need it,'' said Peck, a retired chemical engineer who drove 260 miles from Longview to lend his expertise to the project. ''Without water, you can't do much of anything.''

Those who live in Throckmorton know that well. Many residents began buying water from other sources and hauling it to their homes months ago. Others have had to sell off or keep moving their cattle because there just isn't enough water or green pasture to keep the livestock healthy.

''People in the city turn on their faucet and the water works and they take it for granted,'' resident Byron Parrott said. ''We have families out here using the same water to take baths in.''

The pipeline project began this week, days after Throckmorton reached an agreement with nearby Graham for an emergency backup water supply. Since then, about 100 volunteers have showed up daily to help the town connect with Graham's water treatment plant in Elbert. The first seven miles of the line have been completed.

An $800,000 state grant is being used to pay for the pipeline, which Kunkel hopes to complete in the next three weeks. What the grant doesn't pay for is the manpower to get the job done.

Kunkel says that's what has made the volunteers so vital to Throckmorton's well-being.

''It's all been overwhelming,'' he said. ''We're working out here in 105 and 106 degree temperatures and it's not easy, but all of us feel real good about what we're doing. As a town, it's renewed our faith in people and that when you're in trouble, people are going to come help out.''

''I don't think there's anybody in this county who could have predicted how bad this West Texas drought has been,'' Kunkel said.

Tom Kelly of the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission said if a line was drawn vertically down the state slightly west of Fort Worth, everyone west of that line is on the wrong side of the drought line.

National Weather Service records show that Graham, which sits in Young County, received about 6 inches of rain each month compared to about an inch or two of rain in neighboring Throckmorton County.

''We've had above normal temperatures and below average rainfall, and it is really beginning to show in these small and rural systems without much backup,'' Kelly said.

Since late last week, four water systems have reported they are in dire situations to get water. Pumps have gone out and wells have dried up, Kelly said.

Despite the blistering heat, new volunteers keep turning up each day to lend a hand to Throckmorton.

''I just knew I had to come,'' said Russ Lane, who shut down his plumbing business and drove 220 miles from Austin. ''There's no rational reason why. It's hot out here. But you always carry a lot more out of experiences like this than you carry in.''

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