January driest in decades, severe drought continues
LCRA taking exceptional steps to protect and increase water supply
The amount of water flowing into the Highland Lakes in January was the lowest for that month since the 1950s.
The lower Colorado River basin is in its seventh year of a severe drought, and the Highland Lakes remain near historic low levels, despite LCRA taking unprecedented measures to protect the water supply.
The lakes are refilled by rain and inflows, water that flows into the lakes from streams and tributaries. January is typically the region's driest month, but this January was particularly dry. Less than one-half-inch of rain fell in most areas west of Interstate 35 and between one-half and 1 inch fell in most areas to the east of Interstate 35.
The result is that the Highland Lakes received only 11,763 acre-feet of inflows in January, which is about 18 percent of January's historical average of 64,858 acre-feet. That's the lowest January inflows since the decade-long drought of 1947-57, the region's drought of record.
Inflows have been at or near historic lows during much of the current drought:
- In 2011, inflows were the lowest in history and only about 10 percent of the annual average;
- In 2013, inflows were the second lowest in history at about 18 percent of the annual average; and
- In 2012, inflows were the sixth lowest in history at about 32 percent of the annual average.
Lakes Travis and Buchanan, the region's major reservoirs, now hold about 760,000 acre-feet, or 38 percent of capacity.
"This is one of the worst droughts this region has ever experienced, and 2014 is going to be another extremely challenging year," said Ryan Rowney, LCRA's executive manager of Water Operations. "Until we get enough rain in the right places to fill the lakes, everyone is going to have to be exceedingly vigilant about how they use water."
LCRA, with the permission of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), cut off Highland Lakes water to most rice farmers downstream of Austin in 2012, 2013 and 2014. As of March 1, 2014, LCRA also is requiring its firm customers, such as cities and water districts, to limit lawn watering to no more than once a week. This is the first time in history LCRA has taken such a step. Read more about 2014 emergency drought relief.
Lakes Buchanan and Travis provide water for more than a million Central Texans and businesses, industries, agriculture and the environment throughout the lower Colorado River basin.
In order for water to fill the lakes, it must fall in or above the lakes in the lakes' watershed, an area upstream of Austin stretching north past San Saba and west past Fredericksburg and Junction. The region needs not just rain, but rain in the right spots, to significantly increase the region's water supply.
There was significant rain in the lower Colorado River basin in 2013, including storms powerful enough to cause damaging floods in Austin and other communities late in the year. However, much of the heavy rain in 2013 fell in Austin or downstream of Austin, where it flowed into Lake Austin, Lady Bird Lake or the Colorado River downstream of the Highland Lakes. That water cannot be captured upstream in lakes Travis and Buchanan and flows down the Colorado River toward Matagorda Bay.
LCRA is pursuing a reservoir in Wharton County near the Gulf Coast to take advantage of rain events like these. The reservoir would allow LCRA to capture flows that enter the Colorado River downstream of Lake Travis and hold them for later use.
The new reservoir would be the first built in the lower Colorado River basin in decades, and is expected to be completed by 2017. The reservoir would serve industrial and agricultural customers in the lower basin and would benefit customers throughout the basin by helping limit the need to release water from the Highland Lakes.
LCRA also is drilling five groundwater wells on its property in Lost Pines Power Park in Bastrop County. Two wells began operating in late December and the other three are scheduled to be finished by summer. The water will be used at the power plants to produce electricity. The wells will reduce the need to send water from the Highland Lakes to serve the power park plants.
LCRA urges conservation as dry trend continues
LCRA has been working with its industrial and municipal customers on water conservation measures. LCRA urges everyone in the region to use water efficiently and conserve wherever they can. At a minimum, everyone should strictly follow the watering schedules set by local water providers. These generally limit the time of day and days of the week that watering lawns and landscaping with a sprinkler system are allowed. Most water providers in the region limit watering to a maximum of two days a week. Check with your local water system for more information. LCRA also encourages everyone to turn off their automatic sprinkler systems during fall and winter. For tips on how to conserve water, see watersmart.org.