A Pipe Dream Saves a Determined Texas Town from Dying of Thirst

The word was like a death sentence. A firm of consulting engineers told Mayor Alan Myers Jr. of Olney, Texas that the town’s rapidly diminishing water supply would evaporate altogether within 120 days unless a highly unlikely deluge of rains came. In the best of times Olney, a community of some 5,000 in the arid cactus-and-mesquite country west of Dallas, gets no more than 24 inches of rain a year, and for the past four years of drought less than half that amount has fallen. The shortage was compounded by a heat wave that parched Texas with searing temperatures of over 100° every day for 35 days. “It scared me to death,” said Mayor Myers. “It looked like we didn’t have much farther to go.”

The solution—to pipe in water from lakes out of the drought zone—would cost a million dollars (the entire town budget), the engineers said, and take a year. “The town would have died before we could finish,” says Myers, “even if we could afford it.” He and Acting City Manager Jack Northrup set out to find an alternate plan. If a pipeline could somehow be built from Olney’s cracked and drying Lake Cooper to Lake Kickapoo, part of the Wichita Falls reservoir system 14 miles away, the crisis might be averted.

The Wichita Falls city council agreed to sell a million gallons a day, but the problem remained of finding pipe and laying it down fast. A friend of the mayor’s remembered “invasion pipe,” which Army engineers had installed aboveground in combat zones during World War II. “He said there might be some in storage somewhere, so I started calling around to see.”

Meanwhile word of the daring project filtered through the churches, Rotary and Lions clubs and Rodge’s, the town’s only cafe. “Jack Northrup told me the people were saying they could lay the pipe themselves if I could get it,” says Myers. Within a few days he located a supply of 1940 invasion pipe in Texas state warehouses.

Olney rose instantly to the occasion in the spirit of the town motto: “Lead, follow—or get out of the way.” On July 14 some 230 unlikely pipeliners—merchants, lawyers, executives, ranchers, Mayor Myers and the one-armed Northrup—put signs on their homes, offices and shops: “Closed. Gone for water.”

The next day, as the volunteer army wrestled with the 20-foot, 220-pound sections of pipe, the temperature rose to a blistering 116°—a national record—but a constant shuttle of Olney women in trucks brought cooling drinks.

By midafternoon, however, the crews had run out of pipe just a mile and a half short of Lake Kickapoo. Some sections had proved too old and rusty to use. Mayor Myers tracked down a new source in Oklahoma a few days later, and the volunteers finished the job in two hours flat, tossing His Honor into the lake to celebrate the moment. The whole installation took 25 hours and cost $350, and though only a temporary solution, at least it gave the town a reprieve. “We got letters from all over the country,” says the grinning mayor. “We didn’t foresee that. A lot of people here can’t get over the idea that what we did surprised anybody. They figure it’s just natural that we all pull together around here. It’s some town.”

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