Drought worsens in Central Texas, threatening water supplies

Drought conditions have worsened around Texas, including in the Austin area, which is especially worrisome to cities monitoring already strained water supplies.

According to the latest drought monitor map released Thursday, much of Williamson County slipped into extreme drought, the second-worst drought category, since last week, with Hays County already in extreme drought. Travis and Bastrop counties and much of the Hill Country are in severe drought, the third-worst category.

Lakes Travis and Buchanan, the region’s primary water sources, are just 40 percent full as of Thursday. That’s compared with 75 percent full on March 28, 2011. That year was the driest on record in Texas. Statewide, reservoirs are two-thirds full, compared with 80 percent in March 2011.

“We’re probably going to see much greater water supply problems” this year, State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said.

Across Central Texas, some cities have recently ratcheted up conservation measures, with others keeping a close eye on water supplies.

San Marcos officials tightened watering restrictions earlier this month by banning filling pools, using fountains and washing driveways. The city has restricted watering to one day a week for more than a year. San Marcos draws about 15 percent of its water from the Edwards Aquifer, with the rest coming from Canyon Lake, but the city’s watering restrictions are tied to the aquifer levels.

On Tuesday, Georgetown’s City Council made three-day-a-week watering, previously mandated only under drought conditions, the year-round schedule. “It’s the new normal,” said Glenn Dishong, Georgetown’s utility manager.

The Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District’s board of directors next month is expected to declare Stage 3 drought restrictions, requiring users to cut back water use by 30 percent, as the aquifer’s level continues to dip, spokeswoman Robin Gary said. The district supplies water for areas mostly in western Travis and Hays counties.

Austin has been in Stage 2 drought restrictions since September, which allow outdoor watering once a week. Those restrictions were triggered by dwindling water storage in lakes Travis and Buchanan.

The Lower Colorado River Authority, which manages the lakes, is projecting that by June 1, the lakes will be 36 to 32 percent full and by Sept. 1, 32 to 27 percent full.

“We never had a chance to recover from 2011. We did get some beneficial rain in 2012, but those rain events were so few and far between, and the soil was so dry, it barely ran off in the reservoirs,” said Ryan Rowney, the LCRA’s manager of water operations.

For the past two years, the river authority has cut off water to most downstream rice farmers.

In 2011, the drought caused $7.62 billion in agricultural losses, according to a Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service report, and lakes, rivers and aquifers across the state approached record-low levels as Texas faced a double whammy of record heat and low rainfall.

“The agricultural impacts might be nearly as severe as back in 2011,” Nielsen-Gammon said.

The latest seasonal drought outlook from the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center paints a concerning picture. The drought is expected to persist or intensify through the end of June across much of the state, including Central Texas, according to the center.

Nielsen-Gammon said the current three-year drought, the third-worst multiyear dry spell recorded in Texas, “will probably be the second-worst by the time we get to the end of the summer.”

A series of tropical storms hitting inland areas could bust the drought this summer, Nielsen-Gammon said. The last time that happened was 2002 when widespread rainfall ended a four- to five-month-long drought.

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