By SARAH DOOLITTLE, Four Points News
The Lower Colorado River Authority issued its weather and water predictions for the coming year at the annual LCRA Meteorologist Day last week at its Austin headquarters.
Though drought conditions continue to be dire, LCRA representatives at the May 28 meeting were cautiously optimistic about the potential for improved conditions in 2014.
The most encouraging development is increased warming of sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, which indicate a potential El Niño that could bring moisture to Texas in the fall.
“I am encouraged that almost all the modeling is showing a trend toward above-normal rainfall beginning in September and continuing all the way through the fall and winter periods,” said Bob Rose, LCRA’s Chief Meteorologist.
“But whether this is going to end the drought, no one really knows that. I don’t want to put that kind of information out there. But again, very encouraged that the pattern will begin to change,” Rose added.
Conservation will continue to be key to help manage the water supply.
The goal, as LCRA General Manager Phil Wilson explained, is for “each of you to think about conservation as a very important tool for all of us to utilize. I would ask each of you to think about how we use water, and when we should use water. Am I wasting water? Can I do this differently?… We all need to be conserving. This drought is serious. And each of us has a role to play in that conservation.”
For the most part people in Central Texas have embraced changes in water usage rules and have been key partners in conservation efforts, Wilson added.
Drier than normal summer
Despite the seven inches of rain that fell in the area around Memorial Day, rainfall levels are still two to three inches below normal for this time of year.
Four Points residents are familiar with seeing Lake Travis at 35 percent capacity, its pale shores indicating previous water levels and its many “islands,” including “Sometimes Island” at its center.
The summer is predicted to be drier than normal like recent summers, with 30 to 40 days reaching above the 100 degree mark. But, the seven inches that fell recently also helped to put a lot of moisture in the ground and will help to keep temperatures cooler at least into June.
While potentially bringing rain in the fall, El Niño conditions could also reduce rainfall in June, which is normally one of Austin’s wetter months. If so, with a drier than normal summer, fire risk will continue to be high.
“The fire danger right now has gone down quite a bit all across Central Texas and the Hill Country. But if the pattern does turn drier-than-normal as we head into the summer months… in about a month from now our fire danger is going to start to increase. I think it’s going to be quite high if we don’t get these scattered rains,” Rose explained.
Fire risk could be further exacerbated by the increased vegetation that is growing as a result of a wet spring and will be dry fuel without ongoing rains.
The driest year on record for water inflow into lakes Travis and Buchanan is 2011, but 2014 is on track to become the new driest year on record.
A new record lake low
Water storage in Travis and Buchanan has dropped about two percent in the past year. The two lakes have a combined maximum capacity of 2.2 million-acre-feet, but current combined storage is only 750,000-acre-feet of water.
Furthermore, as Chris Riley, LCRA’s River Operations Center Supervisor warned, “We’re anticipating moving below 600,000 feet sometime in the summer” for a new record-low.
An acre foot of water is equivalent to one acre of land with one foot of standing water on it. To put it in a more familiar context, an Olympic-sized swimming pool holds two acre feet of water.
Drought does not mean no rain. There has been rain and even some mini-floods.
But water that falls downstream of Austin — the 2013 Halloween floods in South Austin, for example — is not captured in the LCRA system. It all flows into the Gulf instead. In order for precipitation to be captured by LCRA, is must fall along the Highland Lakes chain that follows the Lower Colorado River, starting with Lake Buchanan and ending at Lady Bird Lake.
Flood and drought are normal
A chart of lake levels since the lake chain was created with a series of dams built in the 1930s and 1940s looks like an extreme ECG with constant high and low points.
Tuma put the current drought into perspective. “We are flooding and drought-ing. That is the nature of this area.” And as a result, “That is the nature of these lakes.”
The lakes were built to help level out these natural extremes of weather prevalent to the area. By restricting water flow with dams, LCRA can both prevent flooding during heavy flow and store water for use during dry times. The lakes “are doing what they were built to do,” Tuma said.
Besides human use, evaporation takes 160,000-acre-feet of water each year. For comparison, Austin uses 150,000-acre-feet of water in the same year, meaning the sun takes more water than LCRA’s Austin customers.
In response to current water levels and drought conditions, LCRA declared a three-year moratorium on selling water to rice farmers downstream. There could be further restrictions required if drought conditions continue to worsen this summer. For example, businesses could be required to reduce their use by an additional 20 percent.
New worst drought?
Three key criteria determine whether further restrictions will be enacted, the first two of which have already been met: at least 24 months since the lakes were full; a prolonged inflow deficit; and combines lake storage of 600,000-feet or less.
If these three criteria are met, LCRA will issue an official declaration of a drought worse than the drought of record. And 2014 will become the new official drought of record, and the standard against which all future water levels will be measured.
Tuma emphasized the need to curtail use whenever possible. One simple step is for restaurants to not give diners a glass of water unless one is requested.
“I think this drought has caused agony throughout this basin. I think it’s caused economic devastation to some people everywhere you look. You may not realize it if you live in Austin how you’re affected by this drought, but you are affected by this drought,” Tuma said.
In addition to restrictions on customers, LCRA is also looking for more long-term tools to help manage the region’s water resources.
LCRA is seeking the exclusive right to drill groundwater wells in Bastrop County for use at a power plant they own there. They are also acquiring land to build a new downstream reservoir in Wharton County that would allow them to capture approximately 40,000-acre-feet of water for use by customers in that area. This would help to capture some of the water generated by rain and floods south of the lakes chain and would furthermore reduce the amount of water drawn from the lakes chain in normal years.