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Central Texas in extreme drought; reduction of water usage urged

Palmer Hydrological Drought Index for May 2022

Central Texas entered an extreme drought in May, according to the Palmer Hydrological Drought Index. The Central Texas Groundwater Conservation District Board of Directors voted June 13 to move into Stage 4 drought restrictions after a presentation by Mitchell Sodek, the district's general manager. Courtesy image

Burnet County is in a Stage 4 critical drought, the highest of its four-stage drought index, which comes with a request for residents and businesses to voluntarily reduce water usage by 30 percent. 

At its regular meeting Monday, June 13, the Central Texas Groundwater Conservation District Board of Directors voted to move into Stage 4 restrictions, which include not watering lawns or landscapes or washing vehicles. The restrictions are voluntary and mostly affect groundwater users, but the district urges all Burnet County residents to follow them, no matter their location.

The district’s drought management plan covers all Burnet County wells and groundwater users, which includes the cities of Burnet, Bertram, and Highland Haven. Other cities, including Marble Falls, Granite Shoals, and Cottonwood Shores, are dependent on surface water and have their own drought contingency plans. 

The decision to move into Stage 4 critical drought restrictions came on the heels of an announcement that much of the Southwest, including Central Texas, has been in extreme drought conditions since May, according to the Palmer Hydrological Drought Index.

“We didn’t get our average May and June rainfalls. Now, we’re in these 100-degree temperatures,” Mitchell Sodek, general manager of the Groundwater Conservation District, told the board Monday. “The outlooks are not looking good.” 

The PHDI is a thorough indicator of drought conditions, measuring rainfall and surface water levels as well as spring flow and groundwater levels. The conservation district uses the PHDI as a guideline for implementing drought management plans.

The current Stage 4 drought management plan seeks to reduce Burnet County’s water usage by 30 percent through voluntary water restrictions. If extreme drought conditions persist, the district has the authority to pursue mandatory water restrictions after Jan. 1, 2023. The restrictions must be voted on before Dec. 31, 2022. 

Sodek explained that the drought itself does not cause groundwater levels to decrease. Increased water usage during a drought causes the drop. Typically, groundwater levels are seasonal, falling in the summer and rising in the winter. In the case of extreme drought, water usage increases over a longer period of time than normal, which adversely affects groundwater supply. 

“A small well by itself doesn’t have a huge impact,” Sodek said.

Large developments with dozens or hundreds of wells, however, have a heavy influence on regional water levels. 

Along with the May PHDI report, Sodek presented data from several monitoring wells throughout the district. This map illustrates the differences in water availability and flow depending on location.

“Some (monitoring wells) are already reaching their lowest recorded levels,” Sodek said. “Some are doing better than in previous droughts.”

According to Sodek, older, shallow wells are most at risk during extreme droughts. Older wells tend to be more shallow or improperly drilled, making them susceptible to drying out. 

The Central Texas Groundwater Conservation District is tasked with regulating and managing water usage in Burnet County, which means the board is responsible for efforts to conserve water and facilitate sustainable development. As more people move into the area, the demand on groundwater sources will increase.

“It is a balance of conservation with a balance for the needs of development,” Sodek said. “I don’t think many people want the springs to stop flowing.”

Stage 4 Critical Drought Management Plan Guidelines

  • No watering of lawns or landscapes
  • No vehicle washing
  • Reuse and recirculate water whenever possible
  • Check for and repair all leaks
  • Do not use water to wash sidewalks, driveways, parking areas, streets, tennis courts, or any outdoor surfaces except when required for human or animal health and safety reasons or fire hazard prevention
  • Do not add water to ponds, tanks, lakes, reservoirs, swimming pools, or other surface impoundments for holding water regardless of capacity 
  • Water for dust control only when required by law
  • Water livestock in leak-proof troughs