By Kiah Collier
ROBERT LEE, Texas (Reuters) - No one drinks the tap water, which is unbearably briny as the lake dries up.
After one of the hottest summers on record, the lake that is the lone water supply and main recreational draw in this tiny West Texas town is more than 99 percent empty. Robert Lee, which is a two-hour drive east of Midland, has received only about six inches of rainfall this year, half the normal amount.
It is the worst water stitch the town has been in at least since the lake, E.V. Spence Reservoir, was created in the 1960s by damming a portion of the Colorado River.
More water is on the way, but it will only be enough to meet the basic needs of the town of 1,049 and will come at the expense of yet another sizable water rate increase.
Residents are looking forward to improved palatability and a more stable supply because Spence -- which is usually 21 times the size of the entire area of Robert Lee, but now not much bigger than a pond -- withers away.
"It tastes ugly and it stinks," said Delfino Navarro, a mechanic and handyman at a local car dealership, who stood on his browning front lawn on a recent afternoon with a bottle of water in hand. "You can't drink that water or you'll get sick."
Navarro, who has lived in Robert Lee for more than 30 years, said he does not have the means to skip town but he knows of people who are planning to leave or who have left.
After the driest year in state recorded history, most Texas municipalities still have plenty, if less, water. But the plight of Robert Lee has become a reminder of the havoc an extreme or prolonged drought can wreak, as well as how dependent many towns are on rainfall for drinking water and how precarious it is to maintain a healthy supply without it.
"I grew up here and we've always had water situations," said Robert Lee Mayor John Jacobs, 65. "You live in the desert, you're going to be short of water at times and always it would rain and you would get out of it."
Like other West Texas towns, many of which are dependent on surface water supplies that evaporate at a startling rate in hot, dry conditions, Robert Lee has seen its water supply fluctuate over the decades as droughts have come and gone.
"Spence seemed to be a limitless supply," said Kyle Long, who has lived in Robert Lee for more than 30 years. "Just goes to show you that drought can do a lot of things."
The town has suffered from some form of water restrictions for more than two years. Just before summer began, it banned all outdoor water use and asked residents to cut usage.
The lake's only remaining marina shut down this spring. All the boat ramps now lead to dry land -- a cracked-brown moonscape where a few dozen feet of water once stood. The steady stream of out-of-town lake-goers, many who still own upscale homes on the periphery of the reservoir, has dwindled, creating a lag on the town's sales tax revenue.
Herds of feral hogs are beginning to encroach on the lake, which sits a few miles west of town, as all surrounding streams have dried up and there are few people to scare them away. Area ranchers are selling off their herds of cattle. The only thriving grass in town is at the golf course, which uses treated wastewater to irrigate its greens.
The town is planning to build a 12-mile emergency pipeline to the neighboring town of Bronte, which has a healthier reservoir and several wells that produce decent quality water.
But the project is hanging in the balance as the town waits to see whether it will receive millions in financial assistance from the state to cover the bulk of a $9 million project that also includes extensive improvements to the municipal water treatment plant.
The Texas Water Development Board, the state's water planning agency, has until January to approve Robert Lee's application.
Jacobs said the city should have enough water to last through at least January without any rain. But the pipeline project is expected to take 60 days to complete, so he hopes the application is approved before then.
"It's got to come through," Jacobs said of the loan.
Jacobs said the project is only a bare-bones fix. The town also needs to continue searching for the closest and cleanest source of underground water, he said.
Robert Lee is perhaps the most water-strapped municipality in the state. But the situation is not much better elsewhere, mainly in small towns with less diverse or plentiful sources of water and little money in the bank to get new ones.
San Angelo, a town of 93,000, located 30 miles south of Robert Lee, has 22 months of water left. Its main supply, O.H. Ivie Reservoir, which it shares with Midland and Abilene, could go dry by the end of next year if drought persists.
With grim drought predictions, residents in the region are worried. State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon has said Texas will likely be stuck in the holds of drought for another year or longer as La Nina, a periodic weather pattern that causes abnormally dry winters in Texas, has returned.
Ben LaRue, assistant manager at Allsup's, one of two convenience stores in Robert Lee, said if the drought persists, he worries what will happen to local business next year.
Then, LaRue said, "it's really going to hit home."
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Greg McCune)