CONNIE SWINNEY • PICAYUNE STAFF
GOLDTHWAITE — Several years of strain on water resources caused by the drought has prompted Goldthwaite city officials to back a proposal by a private landowner for a small on-channel dam on the Colorado River in Mills County.
An application was submitted to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state’s water regulatory board, by a family of pecan growers outside the city limits who have state-authorized water rights.
“This is not a new idea. This is something that’s been around for a while,” said Goldthwaite City Manager Robert Lindsey of the application filed in January. “We’re trying to work with them cooperatively to see if this is a project we can participate in, be a part of.”
The idea of a dam upstream of the Highland Lakes reservoirs, about 30 miles from Lake Buchanan, first surfaced in 2007 legislation outlining potential new water reservoir and/or water storage sites across the state, he said.
“We’d like to see it advanced if it meets all the criteria all the agencies and regulatory bodies would allow you to pursue,” Lindsey said. “With the 2011 drought experience, the city became very concerned about what opportunities are there to improve the reliability to the access of water.”
In 2011, the Goldthwaite community of about 1,800 people came within 90 days of running out of water.
“If we have a repeat event of 2011, I would hope we’d be able to survive it. But if we have something worse than that, I don’t know,” Lindsey said.
The proposed channel dam would be located about nine miles southwest of Goldthwaite and potentially store about 1,000 acre-feet of water.
The primary purpose for the water storage created by the dam — possibly a structure 10-20 feet high — involves irrigated pecan groves on about 365 acres in Mills and San Saba counties.
Pecan grower David Leonard and his family have permission from the state to use a specified amount of water to irrigate their crops. However, current drought conditions and an intermittent water supply on the Colorado River motivated the family to make the application to amend the amount of water they can store.
“We lost 12,000 pecan trees because of the drought, just not having any water,” Leonard said. “We would like to have a reliable source of water. Not just us, but the city of Goldthwaite and our neighbors, too.”
Flows from the Colorado River through the Leonard’s land eventually combine with waterways, including the San Saba River and the Llano River, to make their way into the Highland Lakes chain. The San Saba River joins the Colorado River north of Lake Buchanan. The Llano River joins the Colorado River as the two form Lake LBJ.
Because of historically low inflows and the current drought, many wholesale or firm water customers such as municipalities along the Colorado River are currently under a 10-percent mandatory reduction in water use.
Lack of rain, record-low inflows and dwindling levels at lakes Buchanan and Travis, the two main reservoirs along the Highland Lakes chain, are causing concerns among those who depend on the water. The combined storage for Buchanan and Travis is about 36 percent full, or 716,000 acre-feet of water.
Should the area see no significant rain by the summer, the storage level could dip below 600,000 acre-feet, triggering a 20-percent mandatory reduction in water, according to the Lower Colorado River Authority, which manages the Highland Lakes.
Central Texas Water Coalition spokesman Kevin Kline said drought issues have motivated water advocacy groups to contest efforts for additional water impoundments or diversion of potential inflows.
“One of the things we’ve seen over recent years, even though we’re starting to get rain again, we’re still not seeing the same types of inflows we used to,” Kline said. “One of the concerns is that impoundments and dams and reservoirs, which have been built upstream, are possibly part of the reason why.
“We have to be cognizant of additional demands on the lake,” Kline said. “We will ask to participate in the TCEQ process to try to make sure what is done is done properly with the health of the Highland Lakes in mind.”
On Feb. 19, the LCRA requested a contested case hearing in response to the Leonards’ application. The LCRA does not manage the portion of the Colorado River where this proposed small reservoir would be established.
“At this time, based on review of available information, LCRA believes that the requested amendment has the potential to adversely affect LCRA’s senior water rights, and thus it must seek a seat at the table and preserve its legal rights concerning these issues through the contested case hearing,” LCRA officials wrote in a statement.
During the drought of record in the 1950s, all but 10 Texas counties in 1957 had been declared disaster areas, according to the Texas Water Resource Institute.
In a period between 1947 and 1957, the state’s rural population declined by 35 percent as a result of the drought, the agency reported. But since those years, the population of Central Texas that depends on the Colorado River and the Highland Lakes for water has swelled.
As the Highland Lakes possibly approaches a drought worse than the drought of record, communities such as Goldthwaite expect to continue their quest for alternative water sources.
“Everybody has to make sure this still makes sense that this (dam proposal) is still a viable strategy,” Lindsey said.
Since 2011, Goldthwaite city officials have sought alternative resources in an attempt to avoid another water crisis.
The city maintains two off-channel reservoirs, supplying 200 acre-feet and 350 acre-feet of water.
Lindsey said the city has secured a pipeline to neighboring spring-rich San Saba County to contract with a landowner for two water wells on private property, but that comes with financial and volume limitations.
“I hope we never go to the point where we have to begin trucking water in or running out of water. It doesn’t make sense. It’s too expensive,” Lindsey said. “We’ll still be at the hands of Mother Nature.”