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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.


October 3rd, 2013 Posted in Uncategorized

The lingering drought that’s draining the Central Texas water supply and threatening the economy is not going to go away soon, a panel of experts said Wednesday. “I think it’s important they understand how precious water is and we need to value it and we need to do everything we can to conserve water,” said Becky Motal, general manager of the Lower Colorado River Authority. “But we also have to be mindful this is a growing state we’re going to have to as a state get together and develop new supplies of water and work together to do that.”

On Nov. 5, voters across Texas will decide on Proposition 6 which would allow the state to use $2 billion

A new Texas Lyceum Poll shows 49 to 36 percent of voters support the piece support the proposition. The engage breakfast happens once a month with a panel made up of the key players on certain issues.  Heather Harward, founder and executive director of H2O4Texas, Greg Meszaros, Director of Austin Water and Becky Motal, general manager of the Lower Colorado River Authority answered questions and talked about the future of the Austin water supply.  “We’re in a very intense drought one of the worst droughts Central Texas has ever experienced and it’s more than just a one-year drought, it’s a multi-year drought,” said Meszaros.  “We’re all going to have to get an eye together and conserve water and work as a community to work through this drought until our lakes can refill.”

Currently, Austin has Stage 2 water restrictions, which means people can only water once a week.  Meszaros said if the lake levels fall below 600,000 acre feet a storage, they’ll have to go to Stage 3, which means once a week with shorter times. He also said a Stage 4 may be possible if the trend continues through the fall. At the breakfast, which was at the Long Center, he said Austinites have set an all time low when it comes to water usage in terms of gallons per capita per day.  He said it’s great people are stepping up to the plate and conserving, but it’s still not enough as the population continues the grow and the clouds lack to drop rain.

“Essentially our entire water supply is from the Colorado River system, the river itself and Highland Lakes which store water for times of drought and because we’ve been in this long term drought the Highland Lakes are about down to a third of their storage and we have to be extremely cautious to stretch that water as long as we can until we break out of this drought and the lakes refill,” said Meszaros. The LCRA said the state could benefit from Proposition 6. “I think the benefit of the state recognizing that it needs to be the leader in developing these water supplies is providing a mechanisms for entities that develop water to borrow money at very cheap rates to implement some of the plans,” said Motal.  She said whether certain entities are using groundwater, piping, or building new off channel reservoirs like the LCRA, it cost money to do that.


September 8th, 2013 Posted in Uncategorized

Along the shores of Lake Austin, well-heeled and influential residents are organizing to fight a possible plan to help deal with the region’s drought by lowering the lake.

Two weeks after word leaked to the American-Statesman about the Lower Colorado River Authority’s idea, lakeside residents have launched a Facebook page complete with email-blast-ready talking points, helped move a state senator to act on their behalf and are pressuring Austin’s mayor and council members to step in as well.

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, sent a letter to the LCRA, which manages the lake, warning that even an epic drought won’t convince residents that lowering the lake is worthwhile unless the agency produces a bulletproof plan and engages in robust public outreach.

“The people of Central Texas will not simply be told that your agency will get back with us at a more convenient time once you’ve decided what you want to do,” Watson wrote on Sept. 5, after growing frustrated about what he considered slow responses from the LCRA to his questions.

LCRA executives have made several attempts to calm the “near hysteria,” as the organization’s chief administrator put it, and assure the public that no decisions are imminent.

The crux of the idea is that by lowering Lake Austin by 2 to 4 feet, the LCRA could use the lake as a catch basin to store water during heavy rains that might otherwise simply wash downstream. The agency says the captured water could satisfy perhaps nine days’ of demand in Austin, which taps the lake for water at two points.

Each such capture could in turn allow another nine days’ worth of water to remain in the region’s two upstream reservoirs, lakes Buchanan and Travis. If the idea works, that is.

LCRA officials are still chewing on that question, which is really a series of questions, some of them technical matters and some political considerations. LCRA officials also said any change in the level of Lake Austin would be only a temporary measure to deal with the drought.

“The possibility of lowering Lake Austin is just one of many that our staff is continuing to work through,” LCRA General Manager Becky Motal wrote in response to Watson’s letter. She added that the LCRA board of directors isn’t scheduled to take up the matter at its monthly meeting, “if ever.”

The uncertainty about when something might happen is feeding the frustration of residents already upset at the thought that one of Austin’s prime attractions — and property-value drivers — could be altered.

David Chamberlain, a lawyer who lives along Lake Austin and who owns two other lots and a rental house along the lake, wrote to both Watson and the LCRA saying that the proposal “would basically destroy my investments.”

He wrote that his home, valued at $1.9 million by the Travis Central Appraisal District, and the rental property, valued at $545,150, sit along a canal off the lake that is three to four feet deep and muddy along the bottom. “If the lake is lowered, (the canal) will become unusable and a dangerous, unsanitary ditch,” Chamberlain wrote in a copy of the letter posted to the Facebook page Save Lake Austin. “Needless to say, if the proposal is adopted, you can expect a lot of well-funded lawsuits from lakeside residents and businesses.”

Other residents created the website constantlevel.org to marshal arguments against lowering the lake, contending primarily that most docks cannot be moved to accommodate differing lake levels and that the amount of additional water to be gained by the proposal is trivial when measured against the region’s needs.

Lowering Lake Austin by 4 feet would allow it to capture about 7,200 acre-feet of water, according to LCRA calculations. The six Highland Lakes — which include Austin, Buchanan and Travis — lost 145,000 acre-feet to evaporation alone in 2012. An acre-foot of water is roughly equal to the amount three average Austin households use in a year.

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell said that although dealing with drought requires creative thinking, his initial take on lowering Lake Austin is that “there is very little to be gained and a lot to be lost.”

Leffingwell said if the idea goes further, the LCRA should consider not only general public opinion but also an outside scientific study of the merits.

With most of Austin’s important civic matters decided only after every conceivable angle has been talked through — the city’s comprehensive plan was adopted last year after hundreds of stakeholder gatherings, informal outreach sessions, forums, committee meetings and public hearings — it’s perhaps not surprising that lakeside residents are demanding significant public vetting.

“There are thousands of voices around Austin that need to be heard on this issue,” said lakeside resident Doug Fierro, a software engineer.

LCRA spokeswoman Clara Tuma said no public forums are planned because the idea isn’t specific enough to present. She noted that the organization has posted a primer on the general concept on its website, www.lcra.org, has done media outreach and is governed by a board that meets publicly.

Since the Highland Lakes were created in the 1930s and 1940s, Lake Austin has stayed at a more or less steady level, along with the three other relatively small lakes in the Lower Colorado chain — Inks, LBJ and Marble Falls. Water passes through them on the way to the Gulf Coast.

Travis and Buchanan, which hold the region’s water supply, were built to rise and fall. During a big storm, Travis and Buchanan catch water until they’re full. They are lowered as necessary as demand from downstream users and evaporation draw down Lake Austin. The system also helps control the floods that periodically ravaged Austin prior to the dams’ construction.

Lakes Travis and Buchanan are now 33 percent full and are expected to drop in October below 30 percent, which would be the lowest mark in their history.

LCRA Plan Flawed

September 5th, 2013 Posted in Uncategorized
CLAIM: The LCRA states that lowering Lake Austin 4 feet will create 7200 acre feet of additional storage capacity for the Highland Lakes.

TRUTH: 7200 acre feet! Wow, if you’re not a trained hydrologist it sounds like a lot, right? In reality, the LCRA uses the technical term “acre foot” to hide the fact that the total gain is less than .4% of the total storage capacity of Travis and Buchanan. Each foot they lower Lake Austin equates to less than ONE INCH of depth in Lake Travis. Lake Travis is down 43 FEET, and LCRA wants to ruin Lake Austin to save a FEW INCHES of water in Lake Travis. 7200 acre feet of water is less than what the LCRA typically passes through Lake Austin to sell to others, and for money-making hydroelectric generation in 5-7 days. This is why the Statesman recently called the LCRA plan a “water accounting gimmick.”

THE BOTTOM LINE: Destroying all the amazing benefits of Lake Austin is not worth the possibility of mere inches in possible savings to Lake Travis. The LCRA has already destroyed Lake Travis; don’t let them break their promises and destroy Lake Austin.

Share the LAKE AUSTIN BLOG and SAVE LAKE AUSTIN Facebook pages with your friends; Like them. Respond on the Austin American Statesman site to the LCRA editorial by telling them the real facts:


Fall Rainfall Predicted; But Will It Help Lake Levels?

August 31st, 2013 Posted in Uncategorized

As lakes Travis and Buchanan — Austin’s main reservoirs — continue to lose close to 1 billion gallons of water a day, forecasters are hopeful there is some relief on the way.
Going into the second-wettest season of the year, forecasters expect normal or above-normal rainfall, said Bob Rose, the chief meteorologist for the Lower Colorado River Authority, which manages the lakes.

“As we get more toward … October, we’ll begin to see more periods of rain, and I think this will continue into the winter,” Rose said. “This is not a drought-breaker or anything, but compared to the summer and last fall, I think we’ll be seeing more rain in the region.”
Austin typically sees more than 3 inches of rain in September and October, and Rose said projections call for at least that amount as the peak of the hurricane season approaches.

Still, Rose said, it would take “successive and significant rains” to pull Central Texas out of the drought, ideally upstream of Austin to refill lakes Travis and Buchanan. That would mean in excess of 15 inches, a rough number that can vary widely depending on where the rains falls, Rose said.

The area has seen three straight years of low rainfall, and the water flowing into the lakes is about a quarter of the expected amount. LCRA officials are trying to find new ways — including planning new reservoirs downstream of Austin — to deal with what could become the worst local drought on record.

Lake Travis is so low that some areas are almost completely dry. Sometimes Island, its mere presence a marker of a dry spell, has become a full peninsula jutting out into the lake, and every boat ramp on Lake Travis has been closed this year. Marinas are reaching far beyond their normal anchoring spots to find some water to sit on. A water treatment plant supplying a portion of the water for Cedar Park and Leander was shut down in mid-August because the lake dropped too low. For each of the past two years, the LCRA has taken the unprecedented steps of cutting off water to most downstream rice farmers.

“The drought continues to be persistent, and it continues to be intense,” said Ryan Rowney, the LCRA’s executive manager of water operations.

Lake Travis was last full in spring 2010, and Buchanan was full in fall 2007. Today, they are about 34 percent full, with 676,000 acre-feet of water total. (An acre-foot of water is enough for three average Central Texas households a year.) Lake Travis is about 7 feet above its record low set during the 1950s drought, the worst recorded in the area.

The two lakes have been losing about 3,000 acre-feet of water a day — 9 to 11 inches a week at Travis and about 5 inches a week at Buchanan. Some of the water is drawn out by cities and power plants. Some is released downstream to maintain the health of the river. And a good chunk is lost to evaporation; the six Highland Lakes lost 145,000 acre-feet to evaporation in 2012, for instance, almost as much as the city of Austin and its power plants used that year.

Even with normal rainfall, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center said the drought will persist in Central Texas through at least November. If conditions continue, record low lake levels are likely for late October or early November, Rowney said.

“That’s the worst-case scenario, but the worst case is what we’ve been tracking on for the past year or so,” Rowney said.

The river authority continues to look into temporarily lowering Lake Austin, long held at a fairly constant level even in times of drought, by 2 to 4 feet to take some stress off of the reservoir lakes.

The American-Statesman first reported the possibility of lowering Lake Austin last week, spurring considerable consternation from lakeside businesses and residents. LCRA general manager Becky Motal said Friday: “In a severe drought, there’s no guarantee for anybody on the lakes. It’s all a matter of rain and inflows.”

By lowering Lake Austin, the LCRA leaves room for it to capture between 4,500 and 7,000 acre-feet of water in a major rainstorm. The prime example of how this could work is September 2010’s Tropical Storm Hermine: The storm dumped about a foot of rain in Austin but considerably less over lakes Travis and Buchanan, just off the storm’s track. The heavy rains forced the river authority to open the floodgates at Tom Miller Dam, letting rainwater flow downstream.

“By not filling Lake Austin from Lake Travis, we might be able to catch a rain storm here,” Motal said. “We’ve seen in the past couple months that sometimes it’s raining on Lake Austin and not on Lake Travis.”

It’s also a water accounting gimmick of sorts: As long as lakes Travis and Buchanan hold above 600,000 acre-feet, the LCRA won’t have to impose mandatory water cutbacks.

Motal said she is not expecting board members to vote on such a move in their Sept. 17 and 18 meetings. Staffers are still weighing the idea.

What is the drought of record?
The LCRA uses three measures to indicate that a drought is worse than the 1950s drought of record. Ultimately, the river authority’s board must approve such a declaration, which still needs to be backed up by significant checking of calculations and measurements, but soon after the three conditions are met, mandatory cutbacks in water use kick in. Customers, like the city of Austin, the LCRA’s single largest, must then cut back their water use by up to 20 percent.

1. The lakes must have been below full for at least two years. This has been met.

2. The amount of water flowing into the lakes must be less than it was during the drought of record for six months. This has been met.

3. Lakes Travis and Buchanan must hold less than 600,000 acre-feet of water. (The record-low storage is actually 621,221 acre-feet.) This has not been met.