Water Update – May 2022

Central Texas Water Update Newsletter for Local Elected Officials – Second Quarter – 2022

April Inflows Into Lakes Worst on Record: Are We on Track for Another Drought of Record?

Totaling 5,450 acre-feet, April 2022 inflows into the Highland Lakes were the lowest ever recorded for the month of April. (There are 325,851 gallons in an acre-foot.) Combine that with an average temperature for the city of Austin that was 4.1 degrees warmer than normal during the month, and you have the sixth-hottest April and the warmest in 10 years.

These factors along with explosive population growth and a diminishing watershed that feeds the lakes have some experts believing the region is locked into another historic drought placing intense strain on the region’s primary sources for water — the Highland Lakes. 

From the start of the current drought (8/1/19), the lakes have received 748,917 acre-feet less water than the beginning months of the historic 2008-2016 drought of record. Year-to-date (YTD) inflow totals for 2022 are only 39,887 acre-feet, which is the second worst YTD ever, with only 2014 being worse. 

While LCRA reports that municipal water usage remains stable, industrial usage during 2021 increased by 125%, with most being sourced from the Colorado River. Should industrial usage continue to climb, in a very dry year, that sourcing could be shifted to the Highland Lakes. That shift combined with increased municipal usage and higher temperatures could place the region’s water supply in a very vulnerable position.

Updated projections by the LCRA of the combined storage of Lakes Buchanan and Travis show the potential for a rapid depletion of 500,000 acre-feet in the next six months, representing a loss of one-third of the region’s entire water supply, dropping the storage level below 1 million acre-feet (combined storage for Buchanan and Travis is 2 million acre-feet).

Recovery of these conditions requires sustained rains and/or a major flood event. With key indicators all trending in the wrong direction, which many believe could become the new normal, CTWC is asking local elected officials and other stakeholders to join them in asking the LCRA for an immediate review and fast-track update of the 2020 Water Management Plan.

Changing Water Supply Dynamics Raising Questions About Subsidized Rates for Mass Use by South Texas Rice Corporations

There’s little questioning the fact that more arid weather patterns are shifting eastward in the country, bringing with them drier conditions that most believe are becoming the new normal. A study by Columbia University meteorologists has concluded that the previously recognized line dividing the more moist Eastern U.S. from the more arid West, the 100th meridian, has shifted 140 miles east and is now located along the 98th meridian. 

That shift includes much of Central Texas, and the impact is being felt by the region at a time of historic population growth and declining water inflows into the Highland Lakes, the primary source of drinking water for approximately 2 million people.

The alarming trends are increasing the scrutiny on water usage and policies that allow for mass quantities of water to be used in the lower Colorado River basin for such purposes as flooding rice fields for weed control. Exacerbating this fact is the practice of the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) to sell these large volumes of water to rice and irrigation corporations hundreds of miles from the lakes at discounted and subsidized rates. 

The Central Texas Water Coalition (CTWC) argues that the subsidizing of rates for these corporations is serving as a disincentive for them to move away from their outdated methods of weed control by investing in more modern and efficient methods for irrigation.

“If you can buy tens of millions of gallons of water each year at discounted rates, why would you want to spend money on technology to update your facilities and practices?” said Jo Karr Tedder, president of CTWC. 

Tedder added, “Rates paid by one rice corporation are so low they don’t even cover the costs of delivering the water, meaning they’re receiving the water for free.” 

On Jan. 19, the LCRA Board of Directors approved rates of $69 per acre-foot for water sold during 2022 to rice corporations. The new rate is less than half of the $155 per acre-foot that the LCRA adopted for firm customers, such as municipalities and business users. CTWC says the pricing disparity is especially concerning given that water delivery costs to one rice corporation are $73.33 per acre-foot, meaning the $69 rate they are charged doesn’t even cover the delivery costs so they’re actually paying $0 for the water. 

The organization says the current Water Management Plan (WMP), which is used by the LCRA to manage the Highland Lakes, still allows for the discounted sale of large volumes of water despite the current drought conditions, which experts project could worsen and possibly exceed the drought of record.

CTWC also cites other flaws in the WMP that encourage the waste of mass quantities of water, including:

  • Failure to financially account for the losses and leakage that occur in transport along the river on the way to the rice corporations’ antiquated canal delivery systems. 
  • Failure to charge for leakage losses of more than 10 billion gallons, or 22% of the water diverted from the Colorado River to rice fields in unlined canals. 
  • Failure to charge rice corporations for water they order but then refuse to divert after it has been released and made available.

CTWC is working to build support for updating the current WMP to address its shortcomings and develop a more protective approach to managing the region’s primary sources of water.

Explosive Population Growth for Region Will Test Water Supply

It’s no secret that our region’s population is growing at a phenomenal rate. The signs are everywhere: new subdivisions being built. Roads and highways being expanded. Large factories opening. It all adds up to more and more pressure being put on our region’s water resources.

According to the 2020 census, the Central Texas metro area — Hays, Travis, Williamson, Bastrop and Caldwell Counties — now ranks as the 28th largest in the country, passing Las Vegas, Nevada, and closing in on Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Add to that the growing population around the Highland Lakes — Blanco, Llano and Burnet Counties — and it’s clear that the region is booming.

How much has the area grown? According to the census, the population of Central Texas went up 33% in just 10 years, the biggest increase jump among the country’s top 50 major metro areas. 

But even that number doesn’t really capture how fast our region has grown. Consider this:

(Data source: Ryan Robinson, city of Austin demographer)

In the mid-1990s, nearly 160 years after Austin was founded, Central Texas finally topped 1 million residents. Only 20 years later, in 2015, the area reached 2 million people. By 2030, just eight years from now, the demographer for the city of Austin projects the city will have nearly 3 million people. 

At the same time, all of Burnet, Blanco and Llano Counties remain in extreme or exceptional drought, despite getting some relief from rains in April. Most of the Lake Travis area is in severe drought. People are already commenting on how this spring reminds them of the drought of record. It will likely have a significant impact on agriculture, tourism and other major economic sectors.

(Source: KVUE)

The drought is a significant factor driving historically low inflows into the Highland Lakes. While the reservoir lakes, Travis and Buchanan, are currently at 70% of capacity and dropping, LCRA reports that inflows in April were only 6% of the historical average and 10% of the historical median. This continues the long-term downward trend in the amount of water coming in to refill the lakes. The drought, which is expected to persist well into the Fall, will also bring a heightened risk of wildfires in the region.

This drought will give policy makers throughout the Highland Lakes and Central Texas region an advance look at the choices they will face in years to come, as our population grows and water resources decline.