Austin water officials said Thursday that the drought is now the worst Central Texas has experienced — worse already than the epic decade-long drought of the 1950s — and that as early as next spring the city might need to pursue options as drastic as banning all but hand-held outdoor watering, creating new and higher customer “drought rates” and even curtailing the use of indoor water.
“This is not your father’s drought, this is not even your grandfather’s drought,” Austin Water Utility director Greg Meszaros told the City Council at its regular meeting. “This is, in my opinion, the worst drought we’ve faced in Central Texas, ever.”
Meszaros did not elaborate on the options he said Austin should consider. But, he said, his staff is working on the assumption “everything is on the table” and that by next spring the city will likely have to face “key decision points.”
“I’m glad to hear everything is on the table,” Council Member Chris Riley said toward the end of the presentation.
Even with recent rains, lakes Buchanan and Travis, the source of the city’s water, are expected in November or December to drop below 31 percent, according to forecasts from the Lower Colorado River Authority, the agency that manages the lakes and sells Austin almost all of its water. When they drop below 31 percent, the LCRA will declare this the worst drought on record.
For the last two years, the Austin area has received rainfall amounts close to average. But that rain has not replenished the lakes as much as it did even six years ago, due to a combination of parched ground soaking it up and rain simply falling in the wrong places.
On Thursday, for possibly the first time in a high-profile forum, public officials openly speculated on the lakes running dry.
Meszaros presented two scenarios, both of which were meant to underscore the importance of finding new water and conserving what’s left, by assuming the region does neither.
Under the first scenario, the lakes go dry in two to three years. Meszaros said this scenario is “extremely unlikely,” because it assumes that 2011’s record-low inflows into the lakes continue. But, he later noted, even during relatively wet 2013 the lakes have not been faring much better than they did in 2011.
“We should plan for the worst and hope for a better scenario,” he said. “There’s no option we will find acceptable where the lakes drop to zero.”
The other scenario he presented to the council assumes inflows more in line with the recent years, some of which included rainfall around historic averages. In that case, the lakes approach empty in five to six years.
Both scenarios assume the LCRA’s customers reduce their consumption 20 percent when the drought is declared the worst on record, Meszaros said.
After the presentation, the LCRA, which issues its own forecasts, said such scenarios will not become reality.
“We do not anticipate any scenario under which LCRA would not be able to meet the essential needs of our customers for water,” according to statement from the organization. “That doesn’t mean everyone will always have all the water they want, but it does mean that even if this historic drought continues, all public health and safety needs will be met.”
Austin officials say they hope that’s the case. To that end, the water utility will be beefing up its public-outreach efforts, including taping soon-to-run spots starring country singer Willie Nelson.