Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.
It was a little bit that way in this drought-stricken Gulf Coast city over the Labor Day weekend. The city was awash in water, but in all the wrong places -- and as a result, there's no relief in sight from the rationing that was imposed in late August on all residences and businesses.
Downtown, some 2.5 inches of rain fell -- the heaviest downpour of the year. However, barely a trace fell where it was needed most -- 35 miles to the north, in the Nueces River basin, which feeds Lake Corpus Christi, a man-made lake that supplies water to a half-million people.
At the same time, city crews spent the weekend as they have spent much of their summer -- working overtime to repair hundreds of water mains that are cracking under pressure from the parched, contracting soil. The broken pipes send pools of water spewing into the streets and gutters -- an excruciating sight for residents who cannot water their lawns or wash their cars, and who must restrict their monthly use for bathing, drinking and household cleaning.
Corpus Christi is one of 39 Texas municipalities, most of them in the south central region, that have imposed some form of mandatory water conservation as a result of this year's dry weather. Another 30 cities have adopted voluntary plans.
In parts of Texas, the drought has been a two-year affair.
On West Texas pastures, an almost total absence of rain starting in 1982 forced ranchers to move, sell or slaughter their cattle, sheep and goats -- at a loss said to exceed a billion dollars. However, in the past six months, West Texas has finally started to receive some rain, and there is hope that the land will be suitable for grazing next year.
At the moment, the most drought-stricken region is a band between Corpus Christi and Austin, the burgeoning capital to the northwest, which imposed mandatory restrictions briefly this summer.
Corpus Christi, a port, petrochemical and tourist center, is the largest city still under rationing. The City Council imposed it on Aug. 25, when the water level in Lake Corpus Christi fell to 83.9 feet, 10 feet below normal, meaning that the lake was holding only 41 percent of its capacity.
"There is no telling when we'll be able to take it off," Water Superintendent Paul Werner said of the rationing. "But it has had a very dramatic effect already. People are being very inventive."
Businesses must restrict themselves to 75 percent of the water they consumed last year, and residences are given monthly allocations depending on family size. For lawn watering, car washing, or hosing shrubs with an improper nozzle, police issue citations, which can lead to fines for repeated offenses.
Werner said that since rationing began, water consumption has dropped by 30 to 35 percent.
DuPont, which employs 800 people at a freon plant, has reduced its water use 50 percent by drawing salt water from the bay to use for cooling. Some residents are diverting washing-machine water out to their lawns; others are heating and reusing bath water.
The Chamber of Commerce reports no loss of tourism or jobs as a result of the cutbacks. "So far, everyone is holding up pretty well under the restrictions," said Jimmy Lyles, executive vice president of the chamber.
By all accounts, the browning of lawns has taken the most painful toll on the civic psyche. Texans pride themselves on green grass. "It is really a traumatic thing for people who invest a lot of money beautifying their lawns to see them go bad," Werner said.
Lawn service companies are loading up non-potable water from the municipal sewage treatment plant and delivering it to customers' lawns and shrubs. Business is so brisk that the city council is going to start charging the companies.
Distilled water is another big business. The low lake level has forced the city to add extra chlorine to the water -- making it taste terrible, in the opinion of many locals. Outside supermarkets, distilled water is dispensed in machines that resemble soft drink machines.
Over the long haul, city officials believe they will lick their water problems. There is no shortage of long-term planning. Ironically, a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation lake was completed two years ago to expand the water system's capactity -- but it remains dry today because it was finished just as the drought began.
The council has begun to examine the possibility of buying water rights to Lake Texana, some 150 miles away, but that is a long-term project, involving the construction of a pipeline. It is also exploring desalinization projects, a perennial dream of water-short seaside areas.
In the meantime, Corpus Christi is, quite literally, praying for rain. Earlier this summer, Rev. Billy Storm of the Travis Baptist Church led some 80 people in an all-day prayer vigil.
It produced no immediate results. But September, they say, is the rainy season here.