LCRA to ask state for permission to cut off agricultural water in 2014 if lake conditions don't improve significantly
October storms produce only modest increases to the water supply in lakes Travis and Buchanan
With the severe drought continuing, the LCRA Board of Directors decided on Nov. 19 to ask the state for permission to cut off Highland Lakes water to most downstream farmers in 2014 if the combined storage of lakes Travis and Buchanan is below 1.1 million acre-feet, or 55 percent of capacity, at 11:59 p.m. on March 1, 2014. On Nov. 19, the combined storage of the lakes was at about 727,000 acre-feet, or 36 percent of capacity.
If LCRA cuts off Highland Lakes water to farmers in 2014, if would be the third year in a row, and only the third time in LCRA's history, that has occurred. The Board also decided LCRA will require firm customers to limit homeowners and businesses to watering a maximum of once a week if the famers are cut off. Firm customers include cities in Central Texas that depend on water from the Highland Lakes. Read more.
The decisions to potentially cut off farmers and limit watering are in response to the historic drought gripping parts of Central Texas. Storms that dumped heavy rains on Austin in October did little to help the water supply of the Highland Lakes. That's because water that falls in the Austin area runs off into Lake Austin, Lady Bird Lake or the Colorado River downstream of the Highland Lakes. That water cannot be captured in lakes Travis and Buchanan, the Highland Lakes reservoirs, and flows down the Colorado River toward Matagorda Bay.
October storms added about 50,000 acre-feet to lakes Travis and Buchanan. The combined storage of the region's major reservoirs is at only 37 percent of capacity and the area near the lakes remains in a serious drought.
In order for water to fill the Highland Lakes, it must fall in or above the lakes in the lakes' watershed, an area upstream of Austin stretching north past San Saba and west past Fredericksburg and Junction. The region needs not just rain, but rain in the right spot, to significantly increase the region's water supply.
LCRA is building a reservoir in Wharton County near the Gulf Coast to take advantage of rain events like those in October. The reservoir will allow LCRA to capture flows that enter the Colorado River downstream of Lake Travis and hold them for later use. The new reservoir is expected to be complete by 2017.
Gauged inflows into the Highland Lakes for October were 50,163 acre-feet, which is about 41 percent of October's historical average of 122,295 acre-feet.
Lakes Travis and Buchanan provide water for more than a million Central Texans, as well as businesses, industries and the environment throughout the lower Colorado River basin. Only inflows produced by rain, or rain falling directly on the lakes, can fill the lakes. Inflows from the region's rivers and creeks have been at or near record-low levels during this prolonged drought.
Weather forecasts call for rainfall to be near normal to slightly above normal through February, but there is not near enough rain predicted to break the severe, prolonged drought. Late fall and early winter temperatures are forecast to average between 1 and 2 degrees above normal.
Responding to the drought
Because of the drought, the LCRA Board has taken historic action to cut off Highland Lakes water to most downstream farmers in 2012 and 2013 and may do so again in 2014. These are the only times farmers have been cut off since the Texas Legislature created LCRA in 1934.
LCRA is aggressively pursuing new water supplies. It is working on a project to drill wells on property it owns in Bastrop County, and building a new reservoir downstream of Austin in Wharton County that should be completed by 2017.
Matagorda Bay health
LCRA has withdrawn a request for emergency relief from requirements to send water from the Highland Lakes to Matagorda Bay in some circumstances.
LCRA sent the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality a letter on Nov. 12 withdrawing an earlier request for emergency relief from future environmental flow requirements this year as the drought continues. That's because LCRA could have potentially been required to release up to an additional 5,834 acre-feet from the Highland Lakes for the bay's health by the end of the year unless TCEQ agreed to waive the requirement.
On Oct. 16, after rainstorms generated enough flow in the river to meets the bay's freshwater needs in October, LCRA sent the TCEQ a letter asking it to delay consideration of the issue until Nov. 27 at the earliest.
The Matagorda Bay system is the second largest estuary on the Texas Gulf Coast. It provides an excellent nursery and feeding area for many species of fish, shrimp, shellfish and other marine life. Because of the serious, prolonged drought, the amount of freshwater flowing into the bay has at times been at historically low levels and the salinity level, or salt content, has at times been higher than is generally considered suitable for many of the juvenile marine organisms that use the estuary to grow and develop. LCRA's Water Management Plan requires water be released from the Highland Lakes under certain conditions for the environmental health of Matagorda Bay. TCEQ must grant permission for LCRA to deviate from those requirements.
LCRA urges conservation as dry trend continues
LCRA has been working with its industrial and municipal customers on water conservation measures. LCRA urges everyone in the region to use water wisely and conserve wherever they can. At a minimum, everyone should strictly follow the watering schedules set by local water providers. These generally limit the time of day and days of the week that lawn watering and landscaping with a sprinkler system are allowed. Most systems in the region limit watering to a maximum of two days a week. Check with your local water provider for more information. LCRA also encourages everyone to turn off their automatic sprinkler systems for the fall and winter. For tips on how to conserve water, see watersmart.org.