As Central Texas drought intensifies, Austin tightens water rules


Highlights

In the Austin metro area, moderate drought expanded into Travis and Bastrop counties.

Austin Water announced Stage 1 water restrictions.

Drought conditions have spread to more than four-fifths of Texas, and the Highland Lakes have shriveled enough to prompt Austin officials to tighten water usage rules.

According to data released Thursday by the U.S. Drought Monitor, a consortium of academic and government researchers, about 81.1 percent of the state is under drought, with some of the most intense conditions centered in the Hill Country’s Gillespie, Llano and Mason counties. The largely rural communities there face extreme drought, which is characterized by major crop or pasture losses and widespread water shortages.

In the Austin metro area, the data showed moderate drought expanded over the past week into Travis and Bastrop counties. Parts of Williamson County were in severe drought, despite isolated storms this week.

“Right now, we’re much drier than we should be. Temperatures are very much above normal. This is going to be one of the hottest summers we’ve seen here in Austin,” University of Texas meteorology lecturer Troy Kimmel said.

Austin had high temperatures in the triple digits all week and will continue to have them into the weekend, National Weather Service forecasters said. So far this year, Austin has already exceeded the 42 days of 100-degree heat the city saw last year, which was the warmest on record.

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The crop and weather report issued this week by Texas A&M Agrilife said pastures and range conditions in the Hill Country continued to decline and potential wildfires remained a threat.

Readings from Austin’s main weather station at Camp Mabry shows the city facing a rainfall deficit of more than 4 inches below normal for the year so far. August has generated only 0.33 inch of rain in a month that normally sees as much as 2.35 inches.

Without rainfall, Central Texas creeks and streams are drying up, starving critical reservoirs that supply water to the region’s communities.

According to the Lower Colorado River Authority, which manages the Highland Lakes, the water storage at lakes Travis and Buchanan on Thursday dropped to just below 1.4 million acre-feet, or a combined 70 percent of capacity. One acre-foot is the amount of water covering an acre a foot deep.

RELATED: Triple-digit heat lingers, making Austin summer exceptionally warm

That prompted Austin’s water utility to announce Stage 1 water restrictions, which means people may only water on assigned days and times and can only wash their vehicles at home with a bucket or using a hose that can be shut off automatically. You can find your watering day at austintexas.gov/department/water-conservation.

Other restrictions apply to restaurants and business owners, which can be found on the city’s website.

“Austin has been in conservation stage since code amendments were adopted in 2015 that established permanent once-per-week restrictions for automatic irrigation and redefined incremental drought response stages,” Austin Water spokesman Erik Luna said. “This is the first time Austin will implement this version of its Stage 1 restrictions.”

The data showing less than 20 percent of Texas drought-free stand in stark contrast to conditions at this time last year, when 86.4 percent of the state was drought-free, just days before the arrival of Hurricane Harvey on the Gulf Coast. This year, no tropical cyclones have approached Texas and the sporadic heavy storms that rolled through Central Texas this summer lasted only hours at a time and evaporated quickly.

Widespread relief from the drier than normal pattern the Austin area has seen this summer might not arrive until November and December, Kimmel said.

Kimmel expects drought conditions to remain unchanged for the next week.

“Forecasting is not a perfect science,” he said. “It’s just kind of what we’re thinking.”

A cold front or hurricane would break the area’s constant hot weather, but neither is on the horizon, Kimmel said.

An El Niño weather pattern is expected to peak in December or January, warming up the Pacific Ocean and bringing moisture to the Austin area, Kimmel said.

When the ocean heats up, winds bring excess moisture into Texas, Kimmel said.

“That’s where we get our precipitation from,” he said. “(The El Niño) could get us back to where we need to be on rainfall. The problem with it sometimes is it throws too much rain at us.”



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