A snapshot of Lake Buchanan in December 2022 shows a drastic drop in level that has area residents concerned. The lake level has not risen in the past six months. Staff photo by Dakota Morrissiey
The Lake Buchanan Communities Alliance has officially requested that the Lower Colorado River Authority open its water management plan early and address pressing concerns over Highland Lakes levels as soon as possible.
The LCRA’s current water management plan was implemented in 2020 and isn’t scheduled to be reviewed until 2025.
The LBCA drafted a resolution, approved during its regular meeting on June 26, that asks the LCRA to take more urgent action, citing dropping levels on Buchanan and the other Highland Lakes, increasing population and development in the area, decreased inflows into the lakes, a lack of data, and a shifting arid climate.
The LCRA uses its plan to set policies and practices for the management of the Colorado River watershed, which supplies water to millions of Texans. This isn’t the first time the river authority has been asked to reopen its plan. Commissioners for Burnet and Travis counties requested it be done in the summer of 2022, but the LCRA refused.
“We can’t tell the LCRA what to do, but I think if the word gets out about the weaknesses in the current plan, I think there will be a groundswell of support from the public,” Wayne Shipley, president of the Lake Buchanan Communities Alliance, told DailyTrib.com.
Shipley and the LBCA have been focused on the dropping level of Lake Buchanan since March 2023, when the organization held a seminar on the topic. The alliance has continued to zero in on water concerns and heard a presentation from LCRA Vice President of Water John Hofmann in April, which was then countered by another presentation in May by Central Texas Water Coalition President Jo Karr Tedder.
The LBCA’s resolution asks for five things from the LCRA:
that the LCRA work with local leaders and stakeholders to accelerate the update of its water management plan to implement a more protective and real-time, adaptable approach to managing the Highland Lakes in 2023;
that updates to the plan reflect current data on lake levels and inflows, provisions be included to encourage water conservation by all users, and the plan be adapted to prepare for an increasing population in Central Texas;
that the LCRA conduct the appropriate research to determine why inflows into the Colorado River watershed have decreased;
that the LCRA implement smart-water usage practices that reflect the arid climate of the Highland Lakes region;
and that the LCRA expand its public outreach and create opportunities for local organizations and businesses to provide input on water management.
These requests were based on core concerns of the alliance: climate, lake levels, and population growth.
“You have a two-edged sword,” Shipley said. “You have an increasing population and a decreasing water supply.”
The LCRA created the 2020 water management plan using data from the 1940s to 2016. Since 2016, the Highland Lakes region and Central Texas have seen a population boom that will likely continue. Austin is now the 10th-largest city in the United States, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau, and receives all of its water from the LCRA.
Regarding the severe drop in water flowing into the LCRA’s main reservoirs, lakes Buchanan and Travis, preliminary data from 2023 gathered by the LCRA show a fraction of the historical averages for the month of May pouring in. The May average across all time of the data collection — 1942 to the present — is 199,410 acre-feet. The average for 2008-15 is 96,501 acre-feet, and the current 2023 average is 43,762 acre-feet. The May 2023 inflows are just 22 percent of the all-time average and 45 percent of the 2008-15 average. An acre-foot of water is equal to 325,851 gallons.
Adding to the issue is a changing climate. A 2018 study showed that the old line that separated arid from humid in the United States might have moved about 140 miles east over the past century, putting most of Central Texas in the arid section.
As of July 5, the combined water storage of lakes Buchanan and Travis was at 51 percent. The LCRA was unavailable for comment at the time of this story’s publication.