TROUBLED WATERS: When the river runs dry
UPDATE: Since this article was written and published in August 2022 issue of The Picayune Magazine, the Williamson County Commissioners Court failed to approve the resolution presented by the Central Texas Water Coalition that has so far been approved by commissioners in Travis and Burnet counties. It died for lack of a second at the Aug. 2 meeting. The resolution is on the agenda for the Hays County Commissioners Court meeting on Aug. 9. The Central Texas Water Coalition is still working on setting a date with the Llano County Commissioners Court.
This story is one of a series on water issues in the Highland Lakes. The series kicked off in the August 2022 issue of The Picayune Magazine. For an up-to-date list, visit the Troubled Waters webpage.
On the day the August 2022 issue of The Picayune Magazine went to press, Lake Travis was almost 20 feet lower than its historical average for this time of year. Lake Buchanan was almost 8 feet below. The two reservoirs in the Highland Lakes chain of six lakes were at 54 percent and 66 percent capacity, respectively, and dropping rapidly — almost a foot a week each for the past month.
“The water wolf is at the door,” Jo Karr Tedder told the Travis County Commissioners Court at its July meeting.
Tedder is president of the Central Texas Water Coalition, a nonprofit organization that wants the Lower Colorado River Authority to accelerate an update to its water management plan. She and other members of the group were at the Burnet County Commissioners Court meeting on July 26 and plan to attend commissioner court meetings in Llano, Williamson, and Hays counties before landing on the LCRA’s door at its Aug. 17 meeting asking to be heard.
The LCRA, however, told The Picayune Magazine it has no current plans to consider the coalition’s resolution seeking a new look at how water in the Highland Lakes is handled. The authority even sent its vice president of Regional Affairs, Hondo Powell, to the Burnet County commissioners’ meeting to convince them not to sign it.
“You don’t need a resolution to talk to us about the water management plan,” Powell said. “There are triggers in there already that would have us bring it forward for review if those conditions are met. It’s only been in place for two years.”
The LCRA’s current water management plan was approved by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in 2020 and has several trigger points that initiate action. As stewards of Texas’ Colorado River, the LCRA divides and sells water to customers in Central Texas as well as rice farmers downstream. Water is also guaranteed downstream for environmental reasons, namely to promote healthy marine life in Matagorda Bay, where the river empties into the Gulf of Mexico.
LCRA’s Vice President of Water John Hofmann acknowledged the difficulty in administering a water management plan with such diverse and competing interests.
“We are a regional water provider with six lakes in an arid region,” he said. “We live between floods and droughts. There’s not always enough water to go around, which is why we have a water resource plan.”
That plan was written during a time of plenty and should be reconsidered using current data under drought conditions, Tedder said. The water coalition wants to see triggers for safe yield to protect the Highland Lakes during drought rather than for when to send more water downstream.
“Decisions aren’t based on science and data as much as politics,” Tedder said. “We need to have a safe yield, and the LCRA has not been open to having that discussion.”
With Central Texas on the grow, attracting major, water-guzzling industries and driving development to house new residents, the demand for water is quickly outstripping the ability of surface and groundwater to regenerate. Inflow of water into the Colorado River basin is a trickle compared to what is being released by the dams to downriver users, Tedder said.
“What I do is I pick a day — in this case, July 14,” Tedder told Burnet County commissioners. “There was an inflow of 11 acre-feet of water into the Highland Lakes July 14. The LCRA released 2,124 acre-feet the same day, and that’s been the pattern all summer.”
She likens the discrepancy to a bank account. If you put $11 into your account and then write a check for $2,124, you would have to dip into savings to cover the difference. Now, do that every day over time. That’s where the water management plan falls short, she said. It might encourage conservation, but it doesn’t bank resources for when the river begins to run dry.
“Other river authorities have safe yield,” Tedder said. “Safe yield provides a buffer of water. When you hit those drought years, you have a savings account of water for those who require it.”