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As 2015 starts, Highland Lakes falls toward all-time drought declaration

Lake Buchanan is seen in the distance from a boat ramp that was closed due to drought conditions. Staff photo by Jared Fields

DANIEL CLIFTON • PICAYUNE EDITOR

MARBLE FALLS — Despite a moderate amount of rainfall in 2014, the two storage reservoirs of the Highland Lakes chain didn’t experience much of an increase in water levels. In fact, as of Jan. 14, lakes Buchanan and Travis held 34 percent of their normal storage amounts.

Lower Colorado River Authority officials said that, without inflows, the two lakes could slip below the 30 percent capacity mark or 600,000 acre-feet of water, at which point, the LCRA board of directors would issue a declaration calling the current drought here worse than the “drought of record” during the 1950s.

John Hofmann, the LCRA vice president for water, said that without a significant amount of rainfall in the right spots, the two lakes could dip below the mark sometime in March or April. But even at that point, the water won’t stop flowing to businesses and residents.

“The biggest question we get is, ‘Are we about to run out of water?’” Hofmann said. “The answer to that question is no, we’re not about to run out of water. We have enough water, but we don’t have enough water to waste or take our supply for granted.”

As 2015 begins, the Highland Lakes and Lower Colorado River basin marks the seventh year in this historic drought. During the drought, the LCRA has curtailed downstream releases for almost all irrigation customers for several years in a row.

If the combined water stored in lakes Buchanan and Travis falls below the 600,000 acre-feet mark (one acre-feet is about 325,851 gallons), the LCRA will require firm water customers such as cities, municipalities and industry to reduce water use by 20 percent.

“As a practical matter, because of the way everybody has embraced what’s going on with the drought, most of our customers are already cutting back, and if not at 20 percent, very close to 20 percent,” Hofmann said.

While parts of Central Texas experience somewhat normal rainfall amounts in 2014, much of it fell southeast of the Highland Lakes and its tributaries. In fact, the Highland Lakes watershed had another year of below-normal rainfall in 2014.

Hofmann said the soil absorbed the rain the area did have with little to none running off into the tributaries and lakes. This, he pointed out, put 2014 inflows to the Highland Lakes at the second-lowest recorded amount since 1942.

In December 2014, inflows into the Highland Lakes totaled just more than 10,500 acre-feet, or 16 percent of the historical average for inflows, for the month of December.

The key to recovery, Hofmann said, is rain but in the right locations, at the right times and in the right amounts.

During 2014, he pointed out, the limited rain fell in about one- to two-inch amounts but spread out among hot, dry periods. The ground simply sucked in the water, which is good for the soil, but didn’t give up much for runoff.

Short of a tropical storm parking itself over the Highland Lakes watershed and dumping large amounts of rain over a few days, the best-case scenario, according to Hofmann, was rain events of three to five inches over a day or two. Instead of long hot, dry periods separating rain periods, they would have to come closer together to saturate the ground and create runoff into the tributaries and lakes.

Without either of those two scenarios, people need to keep water conservation high on their list of resolutions this year.

“We’re all going to have to continue to be diligent in how we use our water,” Hofmann said.

Go to www.lcra.org to learn more about the drought and the Highland Lakes.

Picayune staff writer Connie Swinney contributed to this story.

daniel@thepicayune.com

2014 INFLOWS AT A GLANCE

2014 inflows rank as the second-lowest amount on record as the current drought continues.

• The amount of water flowing into the Highland Lakes from streams and tributaries in 2014 was the second-lowest on record. Inflows totaled 209,023 acre-feet, or about 17 percent of the average, in 2014.

• The Highland Lakes watershed in the Texas Hill Country had below-normal rainfall in 2014, and the region remains in a serious drought. Inflows into the lakes have been below average every year since 2008, when the drought began. Seven of the 10 lowest annual inflows have occurred since 2006.

• Below-normal rainfall near the Highland Lakes in December means little water flowed into lakes Buchanan and Travis — the region’s water supply reservoirs. December inflows were 10,786 acre-feet — the seventh-lowest December totals since the lakes were formed from the 1930s to the 1950s.

• The Jan. 1, 2015, combined storage of lakes Buchanan and Travis — 689,396 acre-feet — was the lowest on record for that date. In early January, the lakes stood at 34 percent of capacity.

• If the combined storage falls to 30 percent, or 600,000 acre-feet, the LCRA board of directors will issue a Drought Worse than the Drought of Record declaration. At that point, Highland Lakes water will be cut off for all LCRA interruptible agricultural customers, and firm customers such as cities and industries will be required to reduce water use by 20 percent from a baseline year.

• More than 1 million people depend on the Highland Lakes, as do businesses, power plants, the environment and, when water is available, agriculture.

Courtesy of the LCRA