Oct 07, 2011

In Dry San Angelo, Global Water Lilies

By Ryland Barton
For Reporting Texas

SAN ANGELO — Ken Landon travels to far-flung jungles, rescuing water lilies from obscurity.

“Back in the days I was collecting lilies in the Sandinista movement down there in Nicaragua,” said Landon, who’s known as Indiana Jones among San Angeloans and water lily breeders. “We brought some stuff back, and they thought we were running some kind of dope or something. They held us, and I thought they were going to get rid of us, but they saw this diplomatic plate on our vehicle, and they said, ‘Well, maybe we ought not bother him, maybe we might stir up something.’”

With a thinning pompadour and dark sunglasses, Landon looks more like a 62-year-old rock star than Indiana Jones. He’s soft-spoken but proud—a combination as surprising as an International Water Lily Collection in bone-dry San Angelo. If you venture into the grove off Beauregard Avenue and the struggling Concho River, you’ll find one of the last lush scenes in West Texas: six pools of obscure flowers floating among lily pads that look big enough to stand on.

Ken Landon's water lily collection is the wettest thing around San Angelo these days. Photo by Ryland Barton

Landon said people drive from across the state just to see the pools.

“A lot of local people couldn’t afford to go anywhere because of the economic situation. You know gasoline is high-dollar. So they kind of just hung around, came and enjoyed the lilies,” Landon said. “I’ve had a lot of people just say, ‘Hey you know what, this is an oasis, and it wasn’t here before you got here, so thank you,’ and that’s what you do it for. You know, you make the world a better place while you can. And that’s what I’m glad we can do.”

Landon’s lily collection is an anomaly in otherwise dried-up West Texas. The region is enduring a multiyear drought that has depleted water reserves. Until a freak rainfall in late August, you could walk across San Angelo’s Concho River and O.C. Fisher Lake without getting your feet wet. The lake—one of three reservoirs for the city—is less than 1 percent full.

For now, Landon’s lilies continue to weather the drought in 3-foot-deep pools and a greenhouse, but he’s starting to worry.

“We did have a prior city manager that told me, ‘You know what, Ken if we get into a water situation, I’ll drill you a well because this is a very serious tourist-oriented thing.’ But at that time, it wasn’t an issue, but now it’s an issue. We’ve only got a few months of water left,” Landon said.

With an estimated 20 months of water remaining, everyone is hoping for rain. Chuck Brown, director of operations for the Upper Colorado River Authority, said that basically, San Angelo needs a hurricane.

“That’s typically where we get our excess runoff and fill our lakes back up, is through those types of low pressure systems that come inland,” Brown said.

Ken Landon wouldn’t mind a hurricane.

“I don’t want anything bad to happen to anybody,” said Landon. “But if we could have a hurricane dump on us for about three days and have the lakes fill up, it would sure make everybody feel a little more at ease.”