Severe drought calls for conservation throughout basin

We all have a role to play in preserving our water supply

June 9, 2014
By Timothy Timmerman
Chair, LCRA Board of Directors

There is nothing more important to our communities than a reliable water supply – our homes, our businesses, our very lives, depend on it.

As we enter the seventh summer of this severe drought – and despite the recent rain in Central Texas – it is more essential than ever that everyone in the lower Colorado River basin do their part to conserve water.

Make no mistake: This drought is serious. Our region’s water supply reservoirs are not much more than a third full, and the Lower Colorado River Authority could begin curtailing water to cities and other customers throughout our service area later this year.

The cause is simple – there has not been enough rain in the right places to refill the lakes we depend on for water. Lakes Travis and Buchanan, the cornerstones of the Highland Lakes, supply water to more than a million people, and businesses, industries and the environment throughout the basin.

The current drought is so severe it has the potential to surpass the drought of 1947-57 as the worst ever. By some measurements, it already has.

The amount of water flowing into the Highland Lakes, called inflows, has been significantly lower in this drought than it was in 1947-57. In fact, inflows from January through April 2014 were the lowest ever for those four months. Thanks to widespread rains over the Memorial Day holiday weekend, May inflows were a little higher, but still only 38 percent of average.

If these conditions continue, lakes Travis and Buchanan could hit all-time lows later this year. This is serious, but manageable. If the combined storage in lakes Travis and Buchanan falls below 600,000 acre-feet – below the lowest in history – LCRA will institute a long-standing plan to slow the rate of water use. Everyone has a part to play in this plan.

Below 600,000 acre-feet in combined storage, LCRA would institute a 20 percent curtailment of water use on its firm customers. These include cities and industries throughout the basin that hold long-term water contracts with LCRA. These customers would be required to cut back 20 percent compared to a baseline year (the amount of water used from September 2010 to August 2011).

The municipal and community water providers would decide how to institute the curtailment in their areas. These could include additional restrictions on when you can water lawns, wash cars, fill pools and more. LCRA already has limited lawn and landscape watering in the communities we provide with water to a maximum of one day a week, but it is up to your local water provider to tell you what day and what times you may water.

Lakeside residents who pull water directly from the lakes also would be required to cut back 20 percent.

None of this is a surprise to our customers. We have been working with them throughout this drought to conserve water, and the efforts have paid off. Lakes Travis and Buchanan are still more than a third full, even in the seventh year of a severe drought. That’s significant, but as the weather heats up and water use increases, it’s time to step up our efforts.

It is critical that all of us follow these rules and do more, where possible. For instance, installing a water-efficient showerhead will save at least a gallon of water a minute, per shower. A gallon may not sound like a lot, but if the million-plus people LCRA serves all did so, we’d save more than a billion gallons of water over a year. That’s a lot of water.

Showerheads are just one example. Landscaping with native plants can substantially reduce the amount of water needed to maintain an attractive yard. Water-efficient toilets, washing machines and other appliances all can make a substantial difference – as can checking and fixing leaks inside and outside the home.

There is a lot all of us can – and should – do to conserve water. However, even with all this, the lakes will continue to fall without significant rainfall to replenish them. That is because all of us will continue to use water, and the hot summer weather will take a toll on the lakes. More water evaporates from the Highland Lakes in an average year than is used by the entire city of Austin.

So, even as we all work to prepare for the new 20 percent curtailment, LCRA and its customers will be discussing how to save even more water if the lakes continue to fall. And we at LCRA will continue our work to drill new groundwater wells in Bastrop County, pursue a new reservoir in Wharton County and find new water supplies wherever we can.

This drought affects everyone. We’re in this together, and we all need to do our part to help make it through until the rains come and refill our lakes.

Timothy Timmerman is chair of the LCRA Board of Directors.