As a coda to yet another year of dreary drought, officials with the Lower Colorado River Authority announced this week that 2013 marked the second-lowest flow of river and stream water into the Highland Lakes on record.
Punctuating the point, federal authorities on Thursday declared Burnet, Llano, Lampasas and Travis counties as natural disaster areas due to drought, making farmers eligible for low-interest loans as they cope with their losses.
“Our hearts go out to those Texas farmers and ranchers affected by recent natural disasters,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.
While Austin saw more rain last year than normal, the regions of the Hill Country whose creeks and rivers drain into the Highland Lakes weren’t so lucky.
That meant that lakes Travis and Buchanan, the chief reservoirs for Central Texas, ended the year with less water than they had at the start. Currently, they’re at 38 percent of their capacity.
In 2013, lake inflows, as they’re known in water management parlance, were only 18 percent of the annual average, leaving many marinas and homeowners high-and-dry. (The lowest inflows on record were in 2011.)
By the LCRA’s ranking, this is the seventh year of a drought.
“As green as everyone’s yards are, as wet as things appear to be, there’s a very serious condition just north of Austin and northwest of Austin in our stored reservoirs,” said Ryan Rowney, LCRA’s executive manager of water operations.
Austin’s rainfall total in 2013 was about 5 inches above average. But much of Llano County, for example, saw annual rainfall 2 to 4 inches below normal, according to National Weather Service records.
With lake levels remaining low, businesses across lakes Buchanan and Travis have struggled.
“It’s a beautiful lake when it’s full, but right now it’s not as beautiful,” said Bill Gauspohl, general manager of VIP Marina in Volente. “It cost us a pile of money to continue to move the marina down. We are taking a hit. This was not a year to be writing your mother about.”
He said that with low lake levels, fuel sales have slowed and people are hesitant to invest in marina slips. While most of Travis County is out of drought in the latest U.S. drought map, a slash of brown signifying “severe drought” streaks through counties northwest of Travis.
Looking ahead, the river authority is seeking permission from the state environmental agency to cut off releases from the lakes for downriver rice farmers for the third consecutive year. The LCRA board also will require its municipal customers to limit homeowners and businesses to watering a maximum of once a week if lake levels remain low.
Those strategies, along with an effort to raise rates to pay for new water supplies, are a bid to stave off a repeat of 1950s drought conditions.
The reservoirs currently hold about 765,000 acre-feet of water; at their lowest point, in 1952, they held roughly 621,000 acre-feet, and were at 31 percent capacity.
An acre-foot is roughly equal to the amount of water used by three Austin households in a year.
The LCRA projects that lake levels could fall to as low as 570,000 acre-feet by July 1 if drought conditions persist, even if releases to most farmers are cut off. If the lakes get to 600,000 acre-feet, the river authority could provide less water to cities around the region.
And early indications are that dry conditions will continue.
The drought is expected to persist or intensify in Central Texas over the next three months, according to a long-term forecast released Thursday by the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center.
“This year’s going to be hot and dry, more than likely, and windy, which just increases evaporation (from the lakes),” Rowney said.
Inflows to the Highland Lakes have set records in recent years:
Rank / Year / Inflow Volume (in acre-feet)
1 / 2011 / 127,802
2 / 2013 / 216,353
3 / 2008 / 284,462
4 / 2006 / 285,229
5 / 1963 / 392,589
6 / 2012 / 393,163
Why this matters
In a worst-case scenario if drought conditions persist, LCRA officials estimate that lakes Travis and Buchanan could fall to a combined 570,000 acre-feet by July 1, even if the authority refrains from releasing water for most farmers.
The LCRA has a 600,000 acre-feet trigger, under which the river authority could provide less water to cities around the region. For the area’s retail customers, that could mean further limits on watering lawns, washing cars and filling swimming pools.