The managers of the region’s main water supply say the outlook now is just about as bad, and in some ways worse, than it was going into the summer of 2011.
Through May this year, about the same amount of water has flowed into lakes Travis and Buchanan as had during the first five months of 2011, according to the Lower Colorado River Authority. The 2011 inflows were the worst in history. And if river authority projections for declining lake levels are accurate, Austin will likely restrict water use even further in the fall.
Even with May’s rains, the lakes received only 14 percent of the water they do during a typical May. And the region is going into summer with the lakes just 38 percent full, one of the lowest marks ever in early summer, and with weather forecasts giving little hope that relief is coming this summer.
“As great as that rain was, it wasn’t (falling) in the right spot,” Ryan Rowney, the river authority’s water manager, said Monday. To better replenish the lakes, the rain needed to fall farther upstream, to the north and west. River authority General Manager Becky Motal also said the ground, being already parched, absorbed some of the water that otherwise would have flowed into the lakes.
“We are in a serious drought,” Motal said. She said the region will not run out of water, noting that the river authority has taken steps such as cutting off the water supply to downstream rice farmers, but added, “A drought is a natural disaster in slow motion.”
The river authority manages the Lower Colorado River Basin, which includes lakes Travis and Buchanan — reservoirs for Central Texas cities, power plants and other customers, as well as downstream customers such as the rice farmers near the Gulf coast.
Austin is the biggest Central Texas customer. Jason Hill, a city spokesman, said river authority forecasts suggest the lakes will dip to 30 percent of capacity in September or October, a point at which Austin would further tighten its watering restrictions.
Austinites can now water lawns with an automatic sprinkler system once a week before 5 a.m. and after 7 p.m. (hose-end irrigation is allowed until 10 a.m. and after 7 p.m.). In the next stage of restrictions, sprinkler systems are limited to once a week either in the morning or evening, but not both, Hill said.
“If it continues to be moderately dry, we’re likely to hit the next stage in the fall,” Hill said.
LCRA officials stressed that the region tends to experience boom-and-bust water cycles. But they also stressed conservation — everything from limited lawn watering to industrial-level conservation measures.
“It is something nature has caused, and it is something nature will end,” Motal said. She said the river authority is also taking “unprecedented” steps, such as planning a $200 million downstream reservoir in Wharton County and considering two smaller reservoirs. Officials also encouraged voters to head to the polls in November to approve funding for the $2 billion water development fund created by state lawmakers to help pay for everything from desalination projects to pipelines over the next half-century.
And they acknowledged a point that Central Texas lawmakers have been harping on: “Our ultimate legal obligation is to our firm customers” in Central Texas, and not the rice farmers in South Texas with “interruptable” contracts, Motal said.
Historically, a rice harvest typically requires more water than Austin uses in an entire year. The board decided this spring that, for the second consecutive year, the organization will not release water downstream for farming.
“We’re the first board in 72 years” to cut off the rice farmers, said Scott Spears, an LCRA board member who is the chairman of its water-operations committee. “There’s an $80 million to $100 million economy downstream that’s suffering … (but) we are not going to run out of water.”
Spears said it’s difficult to predict when rain, likely a tropical storm or hurricane, will fall heavily enough in the right places to break the drought.
“Only God can produce more” water, Spears said, “and I, as the board pastor (on water matters) have prayed for it at every meeting.”