Floodgate operations at Max Starcke Dam, which creates Lake Marble Falls, passed floodwaters due to recent storms through to Lake Travis the week of Memorial Day, helping the reservoir rise to 80 percent full. Staff photo by Jared Fields
CONNIE SWINNEY • STAFF WRITER
SPICEWOOD — The history of dry spells and floods in the Highland Lakes can offer clues about whether recent flooding has eased the grip of the drought, officials say.
“Even in the drought of the ’50s, there was some intense rainfall that increased the lake levels, but then there was a two-year period of intense drought after that. So we’ll have to see what Mother Nature has to provide us in the future,” said Burnet County Precinct 4 Commissioner Joe Don Dockery.
Since 1869, which had the worst flood in state history, the Lower Colorado River Authority recorded several intense dry periods followed by several events of heavy rain and flooding.
In 1952, Lake Travis rose 57 feet in about 14 hours in the middle of a decade-long drought of record, according to LCRA.
“The LCRA did prompt us to celebrate the increased lake levels due to the recent rain but to always have a cautionary aspect,” Dockery said.
On Memorial Day weekend, at the peak of what was considered a dry period nearly as severe as the drought of record, heavy storms and runoff inundated the Highland Lakes.
The runoff resulted in higher water levels along the chain of Highland Lakes.
The wet weather was considered a relief in communities such as Spicewood Beach and Windermere in Dockery’s precinct, where residents had trouble keeping their water taps flowing because of drought conditions the past few years.
Despite flooding, soaked soil and floodgate operations to pass water downstream from the upper Highland Lakes, LCRA reports the area still could use more rain.
“We’ve had some wonderful gains in storage since the first part of May. Lake Travis is up more than 44 feet. Lake Buchanan is up almost 10 feet.
Overall storage has increased more than 500,000 acre-feet,” said LCRA Executive Vice President for Water John Hofman. “A good month is great, but a good month is not a drought-breaker.
“We’re going to want to see a more established inflow pattern,” Hofman said. “I’m hoping that June looks good. We may get some more in June.”
The Highland Lakes supplies more than a million people with water for domestic use.
“We’re in a lot better place than we were a month ago, but when you look at us overall and the big picture, we’re at 67 percent of our storage,” Hofmann said. “While Lake Travis is higher at 80 percent of its capacity, (Lake) Buchanan is only half full.”
The combined storage of the two main reservoirs are currently considered 67 percent full.
Of the two reservoirs, Lake Travis is the larger of the two in capacity on the chain at 65 miles long, while Lake Buchanan stretches out over 30 miles.
Lake Buchanan is deeper yet covers a smaller square-mile area than Travis.
While residents welcomed recent rains, Lake Travis benefitted most from runoff fed by May storms.
“Where the rain falls dictates what watershed is going to be serviced. Travis did pick up the bulk of the rain in this event,” Dockery said. “Obviously, we’re blessed to have this rainfall. We greatly appreciate it, but we just need to try to get a little more water in Lake Buchanan.”
Events of the past also have officials leery about potential releases from Lake Travis downstream to the coast.
In 2007, a “rain bomb that dumped 19 inches in a few hours in Marble Falls and subsequent rain events replenished a drought-weary Lake Travis, prompting subscribed releases downstream to industries, including rice farmers.
“Nearly half the water that was in Lake Travis was released in 2011 downstream, and from that point on, we relied on Lake Buchanan,” Dockery said. “A lot of people don’t understand that those releases from Buchanan during this drought period since 2011 have been what has sustained the Hill Country area.”
Issues with communities during that time included Spicewood Beach being the first city in Texas to run out of water and have it trucked in by the LCRA. Concerns about the supply prompted a mandatory conservation campaign and emergency action to halt water releases to downstream agriculture producers.
Regular releases continued, however, to some agriculture producers with senior water rights on the coast, causing a reworking of the state water-management plan by LCRA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
Residents saw Lake Travis levels continue to fall, and Lake Buchanan upstream began to carry a bigger burden to supply domestic water users across the area.
“All of these raw-water intakes up and down the chain of lakes have depended on those releases from Buchanan,” Dockery said. “We really need to increase those levels on Buchanan before we get to a comfort level.”
The so-called “comfort level” translates into a wetter summer but still no guarantee of a drought-buster.
Hofman said he would like to see more water in the reservoirs from in-flows before people started curbing their conservation efforts.
“We’ve developed some good habits that we need to look at keeping at least for the immediate future, and I kind of underscore the fact that we’re still looking at this drought as being in place for awhile,” he added.