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TROUBLED WATERS: The economic impact of drought

Lake Buchanan on Aug. 9, 2022

The water level for Lake Buchanan, one of two reservoirs in the six-lake Highland Lakes chain, has dropped dramatically this summer. According to the Lower Colorado River Authority, the lake level on Aug. 11 was 1,003.99 feet, or 63 percent full. When full, the lake level is about 1,020 feet. A year ago, Aug. 10, 2021, the lake was 99.6 percent full at 1,016.72 feet, according to Staff photo by Dakota Morrissiey

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

Statewide water needs are expected to increase by more than 80 percent between 2020 and 2050, according to a report on the economic impact of drought by the Center for Public Finance at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy in Houston. The report was compiled with the help of Texas 2036, a nonprofit focused on using data-driven strategies to keep Texas economically secure. (The year 2036 is the Lone Star State’s 200th birthday.)  

“Between population growth and increasing extreme weather, Texas faces the potential for worsening droughts and a flood of negative economic impacts,” reads the third report in the “Investing in Texas” series published by the center. “The shift in water availability will negatively impact existing businesses and future economic development.” 

Loss in gross domestic product is estimated to be about $98.2 billion between 2020 and 2029; $111.1 billion between 2030 and 2039 and again between 2040 and 2049; and $117.6 billion between 2050 and 2059. 

Tax revenue loss is estimated at around $10 billion for each of those four decades. Job loss climbs each year from 598,210 jobs in the current decade to 756,637 in the 2030s; 850,470 in the 2040s; and 988,065 in the 2050s. 

With statewide water needs expected to increase to 5.7 million acre-feet from 3.1 million acre-feet in that 40-year time span (the 80 percent increase mentioned earlier), those economic numbers could very well increase, too. 

What happens next most likely will depend on the weather.

“Extreme weather patterns may reduce water availability and increase the intensity of future droughts,” the report continues. 

The Center for Public Finance report and the water management plans being followed statewide and locally use the Drought of Record, which occurred from 1950-57, as their baseline. At least one watchdog group, Central Texas Water Coalition, is asking the Lower Colorado River Authority to use the 2011 drought — or this year’s — as the baseline. The coalition has garnered support from Burnet, Travis, and Hays county commissioners and the Bee Cave City Council.

“When you’re in drought, you can see the flaws in the water management plan,” said Jo Karr Tedder, president of the coalition. “After it rains — and eventually it rains — after we have a flood, then it’s hard to look at the water management plan and say, ‘Where are the areas that need to be adjusted?’ Legislatively, elected officials don’t look at water until it’s gone. Then, it’s too late.” 

According to Dr. Mark Wentzel, hydrologist for the Texas Water Development Board, the state of Texas this year is experiencing its worst drought since 2011, but it is not worse than the drought in 2011.

“That’s small comfort when 2011 is the worst one-year drought in Texas history,” Wentzel said. 

His job at the Water Development Board is to keep track of droughts and monitor the status of surface water supplies for the state. 

State climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon, who is also a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University, said the statewide drought is expected to last at least another several months, depending on the status of the third La Niña weather system in a row — only the second time that’s happened in recorded history.

“Ocean temperature patterns that favor dry conditions in the winter look like they will persist at least until the end of the year,” Nielsen-Gammon told 

If all goes well, it will dissipate in the spring, he said.

“If it goes into a fourth year, that’s going to be a shocker for everyone,” Tedder told 

Nielson-Gammon said a fourth year is possible, but that La Niña systems typically last one year and cycle through every two to seven years. 

“They tend to be self-limiting,” he said of the weather pattern that cools waters in the east-central equatorial Pacific Ocean.

Central Texas tends to “live between floods and droughts,” said John Hofmann, vice president of water for the Lower Colorado River Authority, which controls water distribution in the Highland Lakes. 

“We are in a significant dry cycle right now, one that’s been going on since the lakes were last full in 2019,” he said. “But the supply is holding up pretty well.” 

The levels in lakes Buchanan and Travis, the two reservoirs in the Highland Lakes chain, are dropping by about a foot a week with no inflows to make up the difference. In fact, inflows have been at zero since at least July 24. With an 80 percent chance of rain in the forecast for this Saturday, Aug. 13, that could pick up but will not likely be more than the discharge, which was 825 acre-feet from Buchanan and 1,373 acre-feet from Travis on Aug. 10 alone.

At the time of the interview with Hofmann (July 12), the reservoirs were at 61 percent combined capacity. At the time this story was published (Aug. 11), they were at 57 percent combined capacity. 

When asked how a mega-drought — a drought lasting 10 years or more — would affect the Highland Lakes, Nielsen-Gammon said there was no way to know. 

“The area lucked out in the 1950s (during the last mega-drought) because there was a major flood in the Hill Country that replenished the water supply while most of the state was still dry,” he said. “We really haven’t seen a 10-year drought in the Highland Lakes region.”

Both Nielsen-Gammon and Wentzel mentioned a hurricane might help.

“I would say that it would be nice to get a hurricane or tropical storm remnant,” Wentzel said. “For short-term relief, that’s what we need. Long-term relief would come from the dissipation of La Niña in the spring. That would be beneficial to the state.” 

The LCRA recently cut off water supply for a second crop of rice downstream near the Gulf Coast because of low lake levels, one of the triggers in the local water management plan. 

“Communities are triggering their drought contingency plans to limit water,” said the LCRA’s Hofmann. “In terms of the water management plan, it kicked in when it needed to. We just announced, because of the drought, we are not providing for a second irrigation system for our downstream customers. The triggers are beginning to kick in as they should.” 

Members of the Central Texas Water Coalition plan to speak during public comments at the next LCRA meeting, which is Aug. 17 in Austin, to make the case for reopening the authority’s water management plan. LCRA General Manager Phil Wilson has said the plan will not be reconsidered until 2025, a date written into the plan. He wrote a letter to local governments and firm water customers, including the cities of Granite Shoals and Marble Falls, explaining his position.

A meeting with firm water customers to review the plan is expected in the fall, Wilson wrote in the letter. LCRA officials (not the board) are also holding a State of the LCRA meeting in Horseshoe Bay on Aug. 24, but that was planned before discussion began about possible changes to the water management plan.