The October downpours that twice dumped a foot of rain over parts of Austin and Travis County tragically ended lives and destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes.
They also minimally benefited Lake Buchanan and Lake Travis, the reservoirs that primarily supply the region’s water. If heavy rain fails to fall over the right spot, Central Texans can be left paddling through a flood and struggling with its costly aftermath and still be forced to make hard decisions to try to keep their lakes from reaching historically low levels.
This week the Lower Colorado River Authority’s board agreed to ask the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for permission to deny downstream rice farmers their state-mandated share of Central Texas lake water. If the LCRA’s request is granted — and it should be, just as it was for 2012 and 2013 — rice farmers will be facing a third consecutive year without a water release.
Tuesday’s 8-7 vote by the LCRA board was divided along upstream, downstream regional lines, the American-Statesman’s Marty Toohey reported. Rice farming predates the building of the dams that created the Highland Lakes. But rice farmers hold interruptible contracts with the LCRA, as opposed to the firm contracts held by the agency’s municipal and industrial customers. In modern Texas, industrial needs and the needs of a rapidly growing population trump the needs of farmers who grow a crop of questionable sustainability.
The farmers painfully have discovered the full meaning of “interruptible” the past two years. They and the communities that depend on their economic health have been hit hard.
The LCRA board also voted to require its firm contract customers to limit lawn watering to once a week if water is cut off to the rice farmers. Austin already restricts lawn watering, but many other communities do not. The new watering limit is past due and should take effect permanently whether rice farmers receive any water.
If additional rains raise lakes Travis and Buchanan to a combined 55 percent full by March 1, then the LCRA might consider sending water downstream. The 55 percent benchmark represents 1.1 million acre-feet of water. (An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons.) Travis and Buchanan currently hold about 735,300 acre-feet and are 37 percent full — a level raised slightly and kept steady by recent rains.
The lowest combined storage for the two lakes was about 30 percent, or 621,221 acre-feet, recorded on Sept. 9, 1952. As bad as the drought of the 1950s was, only about 135,000 people lived in Austin then. The city’s current population is approaching 850,000.
Attempts to keep more water in the lakes during periods of severe drought shouldn’t come exclusively at the farmers’ expense. In August, Toohey reported that the LCRA was exploring, as an emergency measure, the possibility of saving water in lakes Buchanan and Travis by letting Lake Austin, which is kept at a constant level, drop by 2 to 4 feet.
To keep Lake Austin’s level constant, the LCRA must release water from Buchanan and Travis to replace the water Lake Austin loses to evaporation and residential use. If the LCRA were to let Lake Austin fall a few feet on its own, then water that otherwise would be released to keep it filled could stay upstream. And should it rain over Lake Austin, the water that flows into the lake would fill it. When Lake Austin is kept at a constant level, any rainwater that flows into it has nowhere to go but downstream.
The rain that dumped a foot over Barton Springs in mid-October and led to the cancellation of the last day of the Austin City Limits Music Festival forced the LCRA to open a floodgate on Tom Miller Dam. So water that flowed into Lake Austin was released downstream.
Residents who live along Lake Austin opposed dropping the lake’s level, and the LCRA board shelved the idea in September.
October’s wet weather was both a curse and a blessing, a case of too much rain and not enough. It pushed back the arrival of historically low lake levels a few months, and if the region is lucky the day will never come. But it’s important to prepare for it, and if severe drought conditions return, to be ready to save as much water as possible when rain falls where it counts.