Nearly all of Texas is in a serious drought, and almost two-thirds of the state — including most of Central Texas and the lower Colorado River basin — is entering the summer season in exceptional drought, the most severe category.
The eight months from October 2010 through May 2011 have been the driest on record for that eight-month period in Texas since 1895. Rainfall in Austin was 38 percent of normal, and Wharton rainfall was 30 percent of normal.
Temperatures also hit triple digits earlier than usual this year, with three 100+-degree days in Austin in May and more than a dozen already this year. The period from March through May in Austin was the hottest such period on record, and the trend for hot, dry conditions is continuing in June, with no relief in sight.
As a result of extremely dry conditions, not much water is flowing into the Highland Lakes. In fact, the lakes are receiving even less water this year than they did during the same time period of 2009, when the region also faced a serious drought. Since January 2011, about 50 percent less water has flowed into the Highland Lakes than did during January-May in 2009. Water flowing into the lakes, called inflows, from October 2010 through May 2011 has been the lowest for that eight-month period since the record began in 1942.
Though water stored in lakes Travis and Buchanan, the region's two water supply reservoirs, is slightly higher than it was in mid-June 2009, lake levels continue to fall because of lack of inflows, increased evaporation and water use by customers. The level in each lake now is dropping by more than a foot a week.
"LCRA is taking this drought very seriously," said Suzanne Zarling, LCRA Water Services Executive Manager. "We're heading into what's usually the hottest, driest time of the year without any appreciable rain in months and no significant rain in the forecast. We're asking every water user to use water wisely and eliminate waste."
Zarling said LCRA is managing water in the lower Colorado River basin through its state-approved Water Management Plan.
"The lakes are built to do exactly what they are doing, and that's store water when it does rain for times when it doesn't," Zarling said. "The plan spells out how water should be managed to ensure LCRA meets the needs of its firm water customers through a repeat of the worst drought we've ever experienced, and LCRA is following that plan."
The plan includes certain "trigger points" requiring LCRA to take specific actions when water levels reach certain points. Under the plan, when combined storage in lakes Travis and Buchanan fell below 1.4 million acre-feet of water in May, LCRA asked its firm water customers to implement voluntary water-use restrictions in their drought contingency plans, with a goal of reducing water use by 5 percent. If the dry, hot weather conditions continue, LCRA will ask for further actions to save water later this summer and will cut back water for farmers next year, as required by the Water Management Plan. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality approved the current Water Management Plan in 2010. A 16-member advisory committee, including representatives from a variety of water users, has been working for nearly a year to develop recommendations for a new plan. The committee is expected to finish its work this month. The LCRA Board, and ultimately TCEQ, must approve any changes in the plan.
The following table shows current conditions at lakes Travis and Buchanan, along with projected conditions if extremely dry conditions continue through the summer of 2011, as compared to the conditions experienced during the 2009 drought.
* Based on persistent extremely dry conditions
||Sept./Oct. (lowest point)
|Lake Travis (mean sea level (msl))
||648.00 (23 feet below monthly average)
|Lake Buchanan (msl)
||1004.73 (10 feet below monthly average)
|Combined Storage of lakes Buchanan and Travis (million acre-feet) / % of capacity
As the levels in lakes Travis and Buchanan drop, public boat ramps have closed accordingly. As of June 17, Lake Buchanan had 3 of 4 public ramps open and Lake Travis had 2 of 11 public ramps open (Mansfield Dam park and Jones Brothers).
By Sept. 1, it is projected that all public ramps on Lake Buchanan will be closed and 2 of 11 ramps will remain open on Lake Travis. Many boating and recreation opportunities remain available at LCRA parks and local marinas and lake-side businesses.
Safety on the Lakes
LCRA encourages everyone on the lakes to use caution when on the water because of hazards created by the lower lake levels.
For instance, large rocks and other hazards that were 20 or 25 feet below the surface of the water last year are now exposed or just a foot or two underwater.
LCRA encourages people to enjoy the lakes, but to keep close out for obstacles and debris that can be dangerous to swimmers and boaters.