Lake Travis is 88 percent full, Is Austin still in a drought?


courtesy photo

courtesy photo

By SARAH DOOLITTLE, Four Points News

With the help of recent rains, Lake Travis has risen from below 35 percent to 88 percent full so far this year, but officials are slow to say the drought it over.

“The forecast says El Niño will continue to have a rainy impact on our weather pattern this fall and winter, and we are hopeful we may be finally be seeing the end of this drought,” said Clara Tuma, LCRA spokesperson.

Austin and the state of Texas experienced a prolonged, severe drought from 2008 through 2014. Relief came in the form of heavy rains in May and June in 2015, filling lakes and bringing flooding to parts of Austin and surrounding communities.

Texas historically swings back and forth between drought and flooding, known as the drought/flood cycle.

“This year’s rains have been unusually heavy, more than we’d typically seen in a drought/flood cycle,” Tuma said.

In its two wettest months of 2015 — May and July  — Texas got a preview of what forecasters predict will be the development of one of the strongest El Niños of the past century. An El Niño occurs when warm, nutrient-depleted waters collect off the Pacific coast of South America, typically in late December.

Abundant rains refilled Lake Travis, which had reached a new low and triggered the Lower Colorado River Authority to declare a new Drought of Record in February 2015. The last DOR was set in the 1950s.

But rains this year meant Lake Travis rose from below 35 percent to 88 percent full as of Monday. Lake Buchanan also got some relief from the drought and is currently 72 percent full.

The seven lakes managed by LCRA begin with Lake Buchanan in the north and Lake Austin at its southern boundary.

Lake Travis plays several important roles in helping to manage the Austin water supply. Besides storing water for Austin, “Lake Travis is the only lake in the Highland Lakes chain built to hold floodwaters,” explained Tuma. “When Lake Travis is considered ‘full,’ its flood pool can hold an additional 787,000 acre-feet of floodwaters — or the equivalent of about 32 Lake Austins.”

Unfortunately, rains in the spring and October fell south of the lakes chain which meant that the water could not be stored and instead flooded low-lying neighborhoods.

More rain is potential bad news for those vulnerable to flooding. Overall, though, the long-awaited precipitation is good news for Austin.

With the potential end to the drought in sight, that does not mean that LCRA plans on easing water restrictions any time soon.

Because drought is a natural part of the Texas weather cycle, LCRA encourages Austinites to continue their efforts to conserve water.

“Many residents developed excellent conservation habits during the drought,” states Tuma. “We encourage everyone to keep up those habits. Conserving water should be a way of life, not just something we do during droughts. Water is a shared, finite resource, and we all play a role in using it wisely.”

For now, LCRA is reluctant to declare Austin drought-free. “From a hydrological view, until we see a more normal pattern return, we’ll reserve judgment on whether the drought is over once and for all,” Tuma said.