By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - Using a couple of brass rods and a big helping of ingenuity, one tiny Texas town has managed to subvert a drought-related crisis and bring water to the people.
The Llano River was dangerously close to drying up as Texas faces a punishing and record-breaking drought. Residents of this Hill Country town west of Austin depend on the river for their entire water supply.
It neared zero flow this week, and the city was looking at trucking in water from 20 miles away, when city leaders employed the old-fashioned "witching" technique to strike water in the limestone bedrock near the city's water treatment plant.
"It was done by the use of two brass spindles ... and you walk with them in either hand," said City Manager Finley deGraffenried.
Witching is a centuries-old practice used mainly in rural areas to find underground water. Lacking professional advice from hydrologists, many farmers walked their property holding sticks or rods that they believed would move when water was found underground. They would decide where to drill a well based on the witching results.
The National Ground Water Association, which represents the water industry, said on its website that experimental tests show the technique is totally without scientific merit and performs no better than chance. But water-starved Llano residents believe it worked.
DeGraffenried says crews were able to punch a drill through the limestone bedrock and strike water, celebrated by the residents as much as any oil gusher.
"It turned out to do quite well," he said. "It's producing 92,000 gallons a minute. It is not by any means a silver bullet, but it will allow our stored water to last us much much longer in the event the river does go to a zero flow."
Llano's test well is just one example of how Texans are responding to the punishing drought, which now encompasses some 97 percent of the state, according to a report Thursday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Drought Monitor.
Between October and May, Texas experienced the driest eight-month period since records began in 1895.
Residents are conserving water at unmatched levels. Cities are dipping into water reserves they have hoarded for years. Companies are cutting back on operating hours to conserve the increasingly precious water supplies.
Mike Brown, who operates a gardening and yard care business in San Antonio, said more customers than ever are asking for alternatives to the water-guzzling types of grass and shrubs common in Texas for decades.
"We are going to have to educate the public for specific plant materials that grow well in this region under these types of conditions," he said. "This is becoming a new norm for us. We all have to get together and learn better practices."
Some 236 of the state's 254 counties are now banning all outdoor burning, and many cities and counties have canceled their Fourth of July fireworks due to the drought.
Llano, where the river demise has garnered statewide attention, has bypassed the typical twice-weekly lawn watering restrictions employed by most cities and banned it altogether.
A local meatpacking plant has switched from a five-day to a four-day-a-week production schedule to help conserve water. Water consumption in the town has decreased by 60 percent since the river levels dropped, deGraffenried said.
"I think people are learning to use water more wisely," he said.
(Editing by Karen Brooks and Greg McCune)