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Texas Water Utility Plans for Drought Worse Than 1950s

Water levels have dropped at Lake Travis because the drought, May 16 2011.
Lower Colorado River Authority
Water levels have dropped at Lake Travis because the drought, May 16 2011.

Fearing that this drought could reduce lake levels lower than ever before, the board of the Lower Colorado River Authority, the wholesale supplier of water to Austin and other Central Texas cities, plans to meet next week to discuss reducing or ending its water sales to downriver farmers next year.

“These are unprecedented conditions," said the agency's general manager, Becky Motal, in a statement Wednesday. She added, “If the dry weather continues, we will reach levels that we have not reached before in previous droughts."

Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan, the two major reservoirs, are currently 40 percent full. The LCRA says new projections show that by Jan. 1, the amount of water in the lakes could drop close to the levels they were at during the worst drought in Texas history, in the 1950s.

Currently the lakes contain 812,000 acre-feet of water, but the LCRA fears the amount of water could drop as low as 640,000 acre-feet by Jan. 1. The lowest the lakes have ever been was 621,000 acre-feet, in September 1952.

By way of context, Austin used 164,000 acre-feet in 2009. (Austin recently moved to once-a-week watering restrictions aimed at cutting usage.) 

Federal scientists announced last week that La Niña, an intermittent Pacific Ocean phenomenon that has been blamed for the current drought, is back and will strengthen. That means Texas' drought — already the most intense single-year drought on record in the state — is likely to continue for months. This summer's intense heat and high evaporation rates have compounded the problem.

Rice farmers a few hundred miles down the Colorado River in Matagorda, Wharton and Colorado counties rely on LCRA water to grow crops. Ronald Gertson, a representative for the farmers, said he had been aware this could happen. Nonetheless, he said, "it will be a shock to quite a number of [farmers], I think, when it finally sinks in that there might potentially not be any water available from the LCRA for rice production." 

Gertson added: "[Farmers will] hopefully be able to get enough revenue from crop insurance claims to survive the year and hope for a better water year the following year. But I do fear a little bit that this will lead to some extra pressure on groundwater."

The LCRA is currently releasing water from the Highland Lakes for the farmers' second rice crop and will continue to do so until mid-October. Recently levels in the Highland Lakes have been falling at a rate of about 4,000 acre-feet per day. If that continued, the lakes would be drained in a little over six months. However, that rate of decline is largely due to the rice crops, so the lake levels should cease falling so quickly after mid-October.

The board will meet on Sept. 21, following a related committee meeting the previous day.

The board may also take up a new plan — months or years in the making — for managing the LCRA's water that would automatically cut farmers off in January if lake levels drop below certain levels.


Kate Galbraith reported on clean energy for The New York Times from 2008 to 2009, serving as the lead writer for the Times' Green blog. She began her career at The Economist in 2000 and spent 2005 to 2007 in Austin as the magazine's Southwest correspondent. A Nieman fellow in journalism at Harvard University from 2007 to 2008, she has an undergraduate degree in English from Harvard and a master's degree from the London School of Economics.
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