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May 20th, 2014 Posted in Uncategorized

Austin is looking for more water sources as the drought persists and the lakes that Austin relies on for water continue to drop.

Some of the ideas that Austin Water Utility officials are considering, which they presented to a city committee Monday night, are likely to draw criticism from the public.

The ideas include lowering the level of Lake Austin and then pulling rainwater from it, an option previously floated by the Lower Colorado River Authority that made recreational users and homeowners along the lake unhappy.

Another controversial idea: putting reclaimed water, or treated effluent, into Lady Bird Lake. The city would allow some time for the effluent to mix in, then pump some water from Lady Bird Lake directly into a city plant located farther upstream, on Lake Austin, where water is treated and turned into drinking water.

Another potentially expensive idea would be pulling groundwater from aquifers east and northeast of Austin. Several organizations and businesses have already approached the city looking to do just that.

A City Council-appointed committee has until late June to recommend water supply options to the council, which will make the final decision.

Austin has a long-term deal with the LCRA to get water from lakes Travis and Buchanan well into the future. (Austin treats the water at two plants farther downstream, on Lake Austin.)

The city has cut its water use significantly in recent years through conservation. But as those two lakes’ levels continue to dwindle — they are now only about 35 percent full — and Central Texas’ population booms, Austin needs to start thinking about getting some water elsewhere, city leaders say.

“We think this is the worst drought at least since the lakes were built in the 1940s. This summer, it’s possible the lakes could reach the lowest point they’ve been,” said Austin Water Utility Assistant Director Daryl Slusher. “We feel like we have a responsibility to come forward with options for augmenting the water supply.”

The big considerations are how soon each option could provide Austin with more water, how difficult each would be to carry out and how much each would cost.

For example, one of the costliest options would be aquifer storage — or storing reclaimed or treated water underground for use later — which city officials say would cost $130 million to do.

It’s too early to say how much any of the options would raise Austinites’ water bills.

One idea that would be relatively cheap and quick would be lowering Lake Austin, officials said.

That dammed lake is normally kept at a constant level, but if it were lowered three or four feet and then allowed to fill up during rainstorms, the city could capture the extra water for use.

The city wouldn’t have to build anything new to do it — hence, no cost — but it wouldn’t yield much water: only about 5,000 acre-feet, a fraction of the 240,000 acre-feet Austin uses each year. An acre-foot is roughly equal to the amount of water used by three average households in a year.

The city also would need the LCRA’s blessing to do it, and residents and recreational users balked at the idea last year.

People with docks along Lake Austin could see water levels regularly rise and fall, and the lake’s recreational uses could become secondary to its use as a reservoir.

Putting reclaimed water into Lady Bird Lake, then later piping water from that lake into the Ullrich Water Treatment plant on Lake Austin would yield more water — about 20,000 acre-feet a year. (There is a state ban on putting treated effluent into Lake Austin.)

But it would cost about $30 million and two or three years to build the pipes needed to get the reclaimed water to Lady Bird Lake.

Groundwater has its own challenges.

Several groups have approached Austin Water Utility about teaming up to pull groundwater from the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer to the east or the Northern Edwards Aquifer, which runs through northern Travis and Williamson counties and into Bell County.

But Austin might find itself in political fights with groundwater districts that are reluctant to see their water pumped and exported. Groundwater also might require condemning land and building pipes to transport water long distances, making it a potentially expensive fix.

Groundwater would also need to be made compatible, through the treatment process, with the mineral content of the Colorado River water it would be mixed with.

Highland Lakes inflow lowest in 60 years

March 18th, 2014 Posted in Uncategorized

Even after a handful of “ice days” since the beginning of 2014, Central Texas rain gauges remain alarmingly empty – and the drought’s impact on the Highland Lakes is growing more severe.

The LCRA released new aerial video about a week ago, showing just how low Lake Travis remains as we creep toward the coming summer.

During the first two months of 2014, 20,257 acre-feet of water flowed into Lakes Buchanan and Travis.

To put that into perspective, that is about half of what we saw during the first two months of 2011 (37,464 acre-feet). The 2011 Highland Lakes inflows were the lowest in history.

Even more staggering, the amount of water that has flowed into the lakes so far this year is only 13.5 percent of the average inflows. These are the lowest numbers since the 1950s.

If a wetter weather pattern fails to materialize during the next few months, LCRA projections show that the levels of lakes Buchanan and Travis could dip lower than the “Drought of Record” in the 1950s by the end of this summer.

Lake Austin Residents Face New Building Restrictions

February 28th, 2014 Posted in Uncategorized

New ordinances are in the works for building or remodeling along Lake Austin. Austin’s city council could put new restrictions in place to prevent erosion along the shore.

One ordinance clarifies existing rules for docks and limits the size of new docks to less than 1,200 square feet to remove navigation hazards on the lake.

The other aims to cut back on impervious cover on properties up to 1,000 feet from the shore.

“Impervious cover is anything that’s going to keep rainwater from going into the ground,” said Chris Herrington, engineer with the City of Austin Watershed Protection Department. “So patios, sidewalks, swimming pools, homes, all of that is impervious cover.”

The revised ordinance will extend current zoning rules further inland and prevent property owners from being able to change their zoning to avoid environmental stipulations.

The changes come based on recommendations from the Lake Austin Task Force. The group is looking to curb erosion along Lake Austin’s shores.

“You can actually see areas of the lake where huge sections of the land have actually sloughed off because of erosion,” said Herrington. “We do want to keep the shoreline where it is so we’re not putting suspended sediments in the lake or even reducing the volume of the lake.”

The City of Austin draws its water from Lake Austin.

Contractor Dustin Seymore says building ordinance changes don’t surprise him because the permitting process is already cumbersome.

“I think it’s going to really restrict what those people are going to be able to do on those properties adjacent to the lake, and I think in the long term it’s going to affect the property values,” said Seymore. “I wish we could find a balance between managing our natural resources and allowing people to expand, to do the things they want to do with their property.”

You can weigh in on the changes at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the One Texas Center on Barton Springs Road. Two more public hearings are scheduled in the coming month.

Austin’s Watershed Department hopes to have the ordinances ready for city council approval by April.

Inflow Into Highland Lakes In 2013 Is 2nd Lowest On Record

January 18th, 2014 Posted in Uncategorized

The Lower Colorado River Authority announced Thursday that flows of water into the Highland Lakes on Thursday were the second lowest since the lakes were formed by giant dams in the 1940s.

Lakes Travis and Buchanan, the region’s major reservoirs, are now 38 percent full.

Despite a relatively rainy 2013 in Austin, water didn’t fall as much in the parts of the Hill Country that eventually drain into the lakes.

Phil Wilson Named New General Manager At LCRA

December 19th, 2013 Posted in Uncategorized

Phil Wilson, the Texas Department of Transportation’s executive director, will become the new general manager of the Lower Colorado River Authority, LCRA’s board decided Wednesday. Wilson will replace Becky Motal, who is stepping down at the end of the year.

The decision came less than a month after the agency had named an interim general manager — Ross Phillips, who is Motal’s deputy — to take over after her departure, while continuing to search for a permanent replacement. Phillips will assume the position for the month of January, and Wilson will take over in February. The Tribune reported Tuesday that Wilson was being seriously considered for the position; A TxDOT spokesman said no transition plan is yet in place for his impending departure.

Wilson has led TxDOT for about two years, helping direct the agency toward outsourcing and other cost-cutting measures. He has been widely praised by lawmakers and TxDOT officials for helping make the agency more efficient, though some projects under his leadership, such as a plan to convert some badly damaged paved roads to gravel, have drawn criticism.

He previously served as Texas secretary of state and played various roles in Gov. Rick Perry‘s administration, including director of communications and deputy chief of staff. He is also a former senior vice president of public affairs for Luminant, the largest electric generator in Texas.

Wilson will take the helm at the LCRA, a nonprofit state agency that is a major water and electric supplier, at one of the most tumultuous times in its history. The agency voted last month on a controversial drought management plan that is almost sure to cut off water for Gulf Coast-area rice farmers in 2014, for the third straight year in a row. But it has also received harsh criticism for failing to do so even sooner from Austin-area lakeside interests, who contend the agency is partly responsible for the dwindling of Austin’s reservoirs. At the same time, the LCRA is set to lose a large portion of its power customers in 2016, which will have a major impact on its revenues.

Lake Austin Levels Will Not Change

November 20th, 2013 Posted in Uncategorized

After a contentious meeting over its latest drought management plan, which is almost sure to cut off water for coastal rice farmers in the lower Colorado River Basin for the third year in a row, the Lower Colorado River Authority voted 8-7 on Tuesday to approve the proposal.

Under the plan, if the Highland Lakes that provide water for Austin and much of Central Texas do not reach a level of at least 1.1 million acre-feet by March, the LCRA will not release water for irrigation downstream. Since the lakes only have 727,000 acre-feet today, about 36 percent of full, it would take historic levels of rainfall in the next several months to bring them back up to the 1.1 million “trigger.”

The Halloween floods that devastated parts of Central Texas recently had almost no effect on lake levels because the rain fell too far east. Had it fallen just a few miles farther west, LCRA staff said, the lakes could have gained as much as 200,000 acre-feet in one weekend.

The decision to implement the plan did not come easily. The LCRA said it received 130 public comments before the meeting, which more than 100 people attended. The objections from dozens of people who spoke, along with comments from the board members, reflected a wide variety of competing interests along the 600-mile Colorado River and the unprecedented consequences of several years of severe drought.

“We’ve had pain from one end of the basin to the other,” said the board’s chairman, Timothy Timmerman, an Austin real estate developer who has felt the effects of the dwindling reservoir that feeds the city. “None of us enjoy being in this situation.”

Many of those in attendance from Austin, including the city’s water utility director Greg Meszaros, state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, and a representative from the office of state Sen. Kirk Watson said a trigger of 1.1 million acre-feet wasn’t high enough. A limit of 1.4 million acre-feet would be more appropriate, they said, to help preserve property values for lakeside residents and maintain waterfront businesses as well as to protect the drinking water supplies for Central Texas residents. “We must advocate for the most risk-averse strategy,” Howard said.

Many others, though, argued the opposite, that the trigger should either be lower or stay at the current level of 850,000 acre-feet.

“The rice farmers were there first,” said state Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, arguing that the state law that created the LCRA requires the agency to release water for irrigation purposes. “I’m upset today, not just for the rice farmers. I’m upset for Texas. We’re better than this.”

After public comment ended, Vice Chairman John Dickerson, who lives in Bay City, a town that has been hit hard by reduced freshwater inflows from the Colorado River into Matagorda Bay, implored the board to postpone voting until it holds a stakeholder meeting. His proposal lost by one vote. J. Scott Arbuckle, a board member who also hails from the lower Colorado River basin in Wharton County, called for even more drastic water restrictions and a lowering of the “constant level” lakes, such as Lake Austin. His idea failed, too.

The agency’s drought management proposal now goes to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for review. If the TCEQ approves the plan, it would be implemented in 2014.

High Water On Lady Bird Lake Was Unavoidable; Lake Austin Does Not Have Floodwater Capacity

November 4th, 2013 Posted in Uncategorized

During this week’s flooding, water lapped up to the waist of the Stevie Ray Vaughan statue along Lady Bird Lake. A photo — captured by an Austin photographer — has become an iconic image of the event. But given the area’s sophisticated system of dams, should water have ever risen that high?

Officials said the overflowing of Lady Bird Lake was somewhat unavoidable because of sudden heavy rain and overflowing nearby streams and tributaries, already full from previous rains this month. During the storm, three barges floated downstream and were caught on a nearby dam, but officials said they do not think that impeded water from flowing through it. “While it may not have been the highest historically, it was still a significant flood event,” said Carlos Cordova, spokesman for Austin Energy, which controls the floodgates of Longhorn Dam, east of downtown Austin.

The Lower Colorado River Authority controls how much water flows from Lake Austin into Lady Bird Lake by operating Tom Miller Dam. Several miles downstream, Austin Energy controls Longhorn Dam. That system generally requires the two agencies to be in touch when the LCRA is opening Tom Miller Dam floodgates. LCRA officials said Friday that they notified Austin Energy at 10:26 p.m. that they were about to open the floodgates, and Austin Energy officials said they responded.

Cordova said at that time Lady Bird Lake was only slightly above its normal 428.25 cubic feet. “Our crews were out there and monitoring the situation the whole time,” he said. “We were out there the entire flood event.”

Austin photographer Reagan Hackleman took his Stevie Ray Vaughan picture around 2:30 a.m. During the night, three barges being used to construct a boardwalk for the Butler Hike and Bike Trail came loose and became caught in Longhorn Dam. Yet Cordova said water continued flowing through the dam. He said the next morning, around 7 a.m., crews were able to remove the barges. By that time, according to Austin Energy, Lady Bird Lake’s levels were below normal by nearly a foot. “So it’s hard to conclude that the barges caused (any buildup of water) looking at the time line and lake levels,” Cordova said.

Clara Tuma, spokeswoman for the LCRA, said, “There is little question that water released from Tom Miller Dam during its floodgate operations added to the lake levels in Lady Bird Lake. But the lake was also being inundated during this time with significant inflows from the many creeks and streams that feed directly into the lake.”

Tuma added that “because Lake Austin has almost no capacity to store floodwaters, the release of floodwaters into Lady Bird Lake was unavoidable.”


October 26th, 2013 Posted in Uncategorized

The wicked hydrilla is in check, for now. None of the invasive, boat-choking plants were found on the surface of Lake Austin during a recent survey by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, though officials said some hydrilla still exists on the floor of the lake. This was cause for celebration among city officials and the Lower Colorado River Authority, which have spent a combined $210,000 in recent years stocking the lake with sterile Asian grass carp, an exotic fish that loves to munch on the problematic plant.

“It’s not gone, but it is controlled at a level better than we’ve ever done before,” said Mary Gilroy, environmental program coordinator for the city of Austin’s watershed department.  Marcos De Jesus, a fisheries biologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said small sprigs that can’t be seen are still growing on the floor of the lake. “These are hydrilla roots called tubers that can re-sprout,” he said. During the six-hour survey in September, officials used sonar equipment on a boat to look for the plant and also tossed rakes on long ropes to the bottom and dragged them across areas where hydrilla was suspected. “Not a single plant was found,” De Jesus said.

The study of the vegetation in the lake revealed 600 acres of hydrilla in February, falling to 330 acres in June and then to none in September. The most recent survey also found 203 acres of other aquatic vegetation, mostly Eurasian watermilfoil, a much more beneficial plant that increases oxygen, which is good for aquatic habitat and fish. “The milfoil makes for good fishing, because fish like to hide in the plant. It’s good for the ecosystem,” said Gilroy.

Credit the drop in hydrilla to the 48,000 Asian grass carp that have been stocked in Lake Austin since 2003 when hydrilla was out of control. “Carp have kept the hydrilla mowed to the bottom of the lake, much like cows chewing on a pasture. But carp don’t kill the plant entirely. They can’t get to the roots,” Gilroy said. The aggressive and invasive hydrilla, hated by boaters because the plant can ruin propellers, was discovered on Lake Austin in 1999. The plants caused problems when heavy rains fell in July 2002, said Gilroy. “The floodwaters hit a wall of hydrilla, and that caused flooding on homes on the lake,” she said. “Also, 100 acres of hydrilla swept downstream and ended up in the grates of Tom Miller Dam.”

LCRA spokeswoman Clara Tuma said the hydrilla damaged trash racks in front of the dam’s hydroelectric unit. The LCRA spent $384,000 repairing and replacing the racks, she said.

The city and LCRA paid to stock the lake with hydrilla-hungry carp. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the nonprofit Friends of Lake Austin bought some of the fish, too. The LCRA has also lowered the lake at times to remove hydrilla and give dock owners a chance to build or repair docks.  Officials are aware the hydrilla can make a comeback, De Jesus said. A naturally diminishing population of carp, warm temperatures and sunlight all contribute to plant growth, he said.

Travis Rises 2′ Following Rain

October 14th, 2013 Posted in Uncategorized

0:50 a.m. update: As of 10:45 a.m. Monday, Lake Travis had risen about two feet since the same time Saturday, according ot the Lower Colorado River Authority.

Lake Buchanan, meanwhile, is around the same level as it was Saturday morning.

Earlier: A day after Central Texas saw its most significant rainfall in more than three years, the region is poised to see more wet weather Monday and a potential risk for new flooding in the coming days.

Early Monday, scattered light showers are moving north across Central Texas could add another one-tenth inch to already overflowing rain gauges, the National Weather Service said.

Rain chances were at 30 percent Monday, the service said, and starting Tuesday, storms could produce heavy rainfall. By Tuesday night, rain chances will rise to 70 percent.

“There is a good chance for moderate to heavy rain from Tuesday afternoon into early Wednesday morning,” the service warned. The area could “likely receive one to two inches of rain and a few spots of up to 4 inches of rain.”

A boost in Pacific moisture thanks to Tropical Storm Octave, moving at 65 mph near the Mexican Pacific coast, combined with an approaching cold front due to arrive by Wednesday has boosted this week’s rain chances, said Pat McDonald, meteorologist for the service.

The cold front will also cause local temperatures to plummet.

By Wednesday, the high is slated to be 63, which would mark the lowest high temperature the region has seen in nearly seven months. That high was 61 posted in late March.

This weekend’s rains already boosted rivers and saturated grounds, so new heavy showers could produce more flooding quickly, the service warned Monday.

“A few showers today are probably not going to cause any problems,” McDonald said. “But Tuesday, with another two to four inches already on top of a saturated ground, we could see more flash flooding.”

The continued threat of rain comes after many Austin-area residents and repair crews spent Sunday recovering from damage dealt by the severe storms, which flooded some homes, triggered nearly a dozen water rescues and canceled the final day of the Austin City Limits Music Festival.

All low water crossings reported in Travis County during the storm were reopened by late Sunday. Austin Energy was reporting early Monday that virtually all of its outages for 6,000 customers seen during the height of the storm were all resolved.

This weekend’s rains were the most significant rainfall since Tropical Storm Hermine dumped 10 to 12 inches of rain across northern parts of Travis County and southern Williamson County in September 2010.

The weekend’s rain started around 10 p.m. Saturday, but picked up around midnight and fell relentlessly until mid-morning Sunday. Although rain had been predicted, the amount surprised forecasters.

Some areas reported rainfall totals of 10 inches or more Sunday, with flash flooding reported along normally dry creeks that damaged homes and triggered several dramatic vehicle rescues.

According to the LCRA, 3 to 10 inches fell in the Austin area, and about a foot fell at Barton Creek and Loop 360.

As of late Sunday, Lake Travis had risen about a foot, and Lake Buchanan had risen about an inch, an LCRA official said.

The heavy rains weren’t sufficient the bust the drought, however. For example, Lake Travis is still about 43 feet below its average level for this time of year.