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TROUBLED WATERS: Recent rains help, but drought persists

Llano River at Llano Dam in Llano, Texas

Recent rains have dropped temperatures and brought flowing water back to some of the tributaries in the Highland Lakes water basin, including the Llano River, which had dropped to the point over the summer where it no longer flowed over the dam in Llano. The flow returned in late August. Staff photo by Dakota Morrissiey

Some waterways are flowing again with recent rainfall, including a flooded Llano River, but according to water management officials, the drought is not going away anytime soon. 

“While the rain was welcome and beneficial, it was not enough to end the drought or make a significant impact on our water supply,” said John Hofmann, executive vice president of water for the Lower Colorado River Authority. “Since our region has been so dry for so long, much of the recent rains soaked into parched soil.”

The good news is a break in the summer’s record heatwave has helped the water supply. 

“It’s important to note that, even though the lakes have not seen significant increases, the rains have helped slow the lakes’ decline as both evaporation and water use decrease during cooler, rainy periods,” Hofmann said.

The two reservoirs in the Highland Lakes, lakes Buchanan and Travis, are still pretty low and will remain that way for a while. The combined volume of water in the reservoirs registered 1,995,432 acre-feet as of the morning of Friday, Sept. 2 — only 56 percent of the lakes’ total capacities. Another 871,772 acre-feet of water is required to fill them.

Groundwater is also affected by rain, but at a much slower rate than surface water, said Mitchell Sodek, director of the Central Texas Groundwater Conservation District for Burnet County. While rain directly fills the lakes from overflowing tributaries, groundwater is replenished slowly over time. 

Depending on the aquifer, as little as 1 percent of total rainfall can actually reach the groundwater supply, Sodek said. The upper layer of earth absorbs an enormous amount of water when it is dry. 

Also, times of drought actually cause an increase in water usage, Sodek continued, despite frequent requests to conserve. 

“It’s not simply the lack of rainfall that is the problem,” he said. “We have high amounts of usage because people are using water for outdoor plants and lawns.”

Even with the recent rainfall, the Highland Lakes are still considered to be in a D3 stage of extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The conservation district has set the local drought stage at 4, which is the highest. Residents in Burnet County are being asked to voluntarily to cut water usage by 30 percent. Sodek recommended some long-term ways to conserve water, such as testing for leaks. Without a water meter, it can be difficult to detect leaks, which can lead to a loss of untold thousands of gallons of water overtime.

He also recommended xeriscaping, a landscaping style that replaces thirsty lawns and ornamentals with native, drought-tolerant plants. 

Conservation measures can pay off in other ways. The LCRA offers $600 WaterSmart rebates to those who upgrade their irrigation systems, landscaping, and pools to be more water efficient. 

The drought might not be done, but neither is the rain, at least in the near future. Rain and scattered thunderstorms are expected in the Highland Lakes over the next 10 days, according to forecasts.

“We are grateful for the recent rains and look forward to additional rain in the coming days,” Hofmann said.