Water Update – October 2021

Central Texas Water Update Newsletter for Local Elected Officials – Fourth Quarter – 2021

Water Roundtables Scheduled for Local and County Officials — Buchanan Dam/Lakeway

The Central Texas Water Coalition will host two water round table discussions for local elected officials from the Upper Basin region of the Colorado River that will focus on preparing for the future. The first will be Wednesday, Nov. 17, at the Hill Country Hall at Buchanan Dam. The second will be Thursday, Nov. 18, at the Lakeway Activity Center. The events begin at 11:00 a.m., with the program beginning at 11:30 and ending at 1:00 p.m. Lunch will be provided.

As Central Texas goes through rapid economic expansion and population growth, it also faces an increasingly uncertain water supply, as rain patterns shift, drought becomes more common, and inflows into the Highland Lakes decline. The round tables will include an in-depth discussion on the future of our water supply and what should be done now to prepare for what’s in store for the region.

The event will also include insightful presentations on the region’s Water Management Plan (WMP), shifting weather trends, and local water issues.To register, go to: WaterRoundTableNov17.com (Buchanan Dam) or WaterRoundTableNov18.com (Lakeway), depending on the date and location preferred. There is no charge for the event.

Enough Is Enough: Water Group Says LCRA Violating Intent of State Pricing Law, Putting Region’s Water Supply at Risk for Future

The Central Texas Water Coalition says the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) is putting the region’s water supply at risk by providing massive volumes of water to its downstream irrigation customers at rates that fail to fully recover its costs. Under existing water policies, the LCRA could have released up to 292,000 acre-feet (or 95,148,492,000 billion gallons of water) this year to downstream irrigators. 

“The low rates charged for these massive releases undermine the state’s water conservation policies and goals. This does not encourage the use of more efficient irrigation methods and a more protective approach for the region’s water supply,” said Jo Karr Tedder, president of the Central Texas Water Coalition (CTWC). 

The group’s criticism comes as the LCRA board recently approved another water rate increase for water utilities, local governments, water wholesalers, businesses, industries and other nonirrigation customers that purchase water from LCRA. The LCRA’s rate increase will have widespread impacts on water rates for residential and business customers throughout LCRA’s service area. With no debate, the LCRA approved a rate increase for non-irrigation customers from $145 per acre-foot to $155 (there are 325,851 gallons in one acre-foot). Downstream irrigation customers currently pay about $66 per acre-foot for raw water and delivery costs. In some cases, the cost of delivery alone exceeds $66 per acre-foot, meaning those irrigation customers pay nothing for raw water. 

CTWC says it opposed this increase and any future increases for nonirrigation customers until the LCRA addresses the disparity in rates between its customer groups and shifts to a more protective approach for the region’s overall water supply. 

Under both LCRA’s enabling legislation and under Texas law regulating wholesale water rates, LCRA is required to set rates that are fair, nondiscriminatory and nonprejudicial among all classes of customers. CTWC says current rates are none of those. 

The group says the LCRA claims that the low rates paid by downstream irrigators, who are considered “interruptible” customers, are justified because their water is not guaranteed. However, since LCRA’s formation, the only time downstream irrigators were cut off was 2012-2015, during the historic drought that lasted from 2008-2015.

“It is this kind of discriminatory rate setting that Texas law forbids,” stated Tedder.

The group says LCRA has stated that it intends to move toward rate parity, and claims to be pursuing that over a seven-to-eight-year period. But CTWC says the LCRA has backtracked by creating a special multimillion-dollar fund to mitigate rate increases for irrigation customers by subsidizing the rates they pay. 

CTWC says it has attempted to call attention to the rate disparity for years, but the shocking decline in inflows to the Highland Lakes has pushed it to a tipping point. With the region expected to add up to a million new residents by 2030, the group says there is no corresponding shift in water policies or plans to protect water supplies critical to the area’s residents and economy in the Upper Basin. Shifting weather patterns and recent water storage projections are adding to the risk. CTWC fears the Texas Colorado River could be in danger of emulating the current crisis on the Western Colorado River.

“Where’s the water going to come from?” says Tedder. “We’re in one of the most rapidly growing regions in the country. This isn’t complicated to understand. Explosive growth, declining water inflows into our lakes, extended droughts and no apparent plans to change pricing policies to better protect the water supply make it pretty easy to figure out where this is headed.” 

Tedder added, “Hoping for rainfall is not a long-term plan for managing what’s in store for Central Texas.” 

She says water experts are expressing their concern to CTWC, as many want to avoid publicly questioning what some consider to be an unregulated monopoly. 

Tedder said that CTWC simply asks for fairness and sound risk management, and that the LCRA should live up to its role as stewards of the water in the Lower Colorado River Basin. They’re asking the LCRA to assume its legal and moral obligation in making water use decisions that promote modern and accepted conservation practices for agricultural use. The organization believes downstream irrigation customers should:

  • Pay a rate that covers LCRA’s total cost of service to them.
  • Pay for water they request but decline to use when it reaches them.
  • Pay for water that is lost in the river and canals while on its way to them.

CTWC provided public comments at the LCRA board meeting when the rate increase was approved. The organization is also meeting with local elected officials to raise awareness of the need for a new approach that reflects the paradigm shift.

“We’d welcome serious and open discourse about these issues,” said Tedder.

Water Inflows Into Highland Lakes in Sharp Decline

The amount of water flowing into the Highland Lakes, and Lake Buchanan in particular, is down significantly from when the dams were built on the Colorado River. A 2020 study in Texas Water Journal, published by Texas A&M, found that from 1942 to 2013, inflow volumes across all the Highland Lakes were down 19%. Inflow into Lake Buchanan was down an alarming 59%. 

The Highland Lakes are fed by two major drainage basins along the Colorado River: the Lake Buchanan basin and the Lake Travis basin, with all of the water coming from rainfall. 

The Lake Buchanan basin, under the jurisdiction of the Upper Colorado River Authority

Streamflow in the Colorado River accounts for 97% of the water supply for Lake Buchanan, as measured by a gauge near San Saba. If the amount flowing from the upper reaches of the Colorado goes down, there is a corresponding decline in the water level of Lake Buchanan.

A 2017 study by the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) also noted this trend. It found that while rainfall held steady or slightly increased over the period 1940 to 2016, observed stream flows in the Upper Colorado Basin went down at all the measuring sites. 

According to the Texas Water Journal study, the biggest factor reducing inflow into Lake Buchanan is the construction of 19 major and over 69,000 minor reservoirs in the Upper Colorado Basin since 1940. These reservoirs hold back water to meet municipal and agricultural needs in that region. The report noted a significant amount of water is lost due to evaporation from those reservoirs. 

For example, before the E.V. Spence Reservoir was finished in 1969, river inflow into Lake Buchanan amounted to 59% of all Highland Lakes inflow. Since 1969, Lake Buchanan inflow has been only 39% of the Highland Lakes total, and only 29% for the period between 2006 and 2013.

Other factors reducing the amount of streamflow are drought, evaporation due to temperature rise, and the proliferation of water-thirsty brush like cedar and mesquite. 

The Lake Travis basin, primarily fed by the Llano River, Pedernales River and Sandy Creek

Streamflow here is actually up 42% from when Mansfield Dam was finished. The primary reason is that few major reservoirs have been built on the contributing rivers and streams that feed the lake.

At the same time, however, the declining water contribution from Lake Buchanan is making the Lake Travis water level much more dependent on those other inflow sources. In a drought, if the Pedernales and Llano Rivers dry up, Lake Travis will dry up as well.

Another factor affecting Lake Travis has been the proliferation of water wells across the region, particularly in the Pedernales River basin. Groundwater withdrawal has gone up significantly since the 1980s. The Texas Water Journal study found that in years of normal rainfall, aquifer pumping hasn’t had much effect on inflow from the Llano and Pedernales Rivers into Lake Travis. However, in drier years, or during a prolonged drought, aquifer pumping does have a significant effect. As water is pulled from an aquifer under a river, seepage from the aquifer into the downstream lake declines. Flow from springs into the supplying rivers also goes down. And when rain does come, it tends to seep into the depleted aquifer instead of flowing into the river.

The most recent inflow chart from LCRA vividly illustrates this decline.

Since 1942, the average September inflow has been 96,478 acre-feet. For 2008 to 2015, the September average had dropped to 25,098 acre-feet. But in September of this year, the estimated inflow was only 9,775 acre-feet.

As Central Texas Water Coalition President Jo Karr Tedder recently put it, “Even after all of the rain we had earlier this year, inflows into the lakes are only a fraction of what they have been historically. That’s the best measure of the health of the lakes and clearly, we’re going in the wrong direction.”

What the Future Holds

Central Texas and the Highland Lakes Region face two trends that are about to collide. First, as noted above, there is a strong, direct correlation between precipitation and how much water flows into the lakes. Future rainfall models predict that while the Hill Country will continue getting its historic amount of rainfall, the pattern will change considerably. Instead of being evenly spread throughout the year, it will likely come through massive downpours separated by long dry stretches. This will increase reliance on aquifer water, reducing inflow into Lake Travis. It will also reduce the already diminished inflow into Lake Buchanan, as more rain is held back to refill reservoirs upstream.

At the same time, the population of Central Texas is booming. The Census Bureau reports that Hays and Williamson Counties have nearly twice as many residents today as in 2010. Travis, Bastrop and Llano Counties are up 25% or more. This trend is expected to accelerate, with the region expected to add up to a million or more people by 2030. That, in turn, will greatly increase demand for water from the Highland Lakes.

The result: We will be drawing water from the Highland Lakes faster than nature can refill them. The situation will only get worse as the region’s population goes up and inflows go down.

Sources: Texas Water Development Board
Texas Water Journal
Lower Colorado River Authority

A Sign of Things to Come: Western Colorado River Drying Up

On Aug. 16, 2021, the federal Bureau of Reclamation declared the first ever water shortage on the western Colorado River. 

This came after Lake Mead, the nation’s largest freshwater reservoir, dropped to 35% of its capacity, the lowest level since lake was created in the 1930s with the construction of the Hoover Dam. Its companion reservoir upstream, Lake Powell, is now only about 30% full. The water level in Lake Mead has dropped 50 feet in just the past year. Water flow in the river today is 20% lower than its average in the 20th century.

Lake Mead

Together, these lakes provide water to roughly 25 million people in Nevada, Arizona, California and Mexico, including residents of Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Diego, and to farmers who grow a large portion of the nation’s cotton and vegetable crops. 

The immediate impact of the water shortage declaration will be an 18% cut in water supplied to Arizona. Nevada will receive 7% less water. If the lakes continue to fall, as is expected, even more drastic supply cuts will also take effect, including for users in California.

The water shortage is caused by two trends: 

  • Rain and snowfall going down due to drought, and 
  • Population in the area going up. 

According to USA Today, nearly 60% of the American West is listed as being in extreme or severe drought, up from only 2.5% last year. Parts of Arizona have been living with drought since 1994. A recent study in the journal Science found that the period from 2000 to 2018 was the driest stretch the Southwest has seen in 500 years, and there is no end in sight.

Lake Powell

At the same time, the region’s population has boomed, particularly in the Southwest. Since Arizona’s drought began in 1994, its population has nearly doubled, to over 7 million people. That trend is expected to continue, with the population of Phoenix alone expected to reach 6.5 million by 2040.

According to John Fleck, director of water resources at the University of New Mexico, Arizona will face a tough choice between cities and farms. “It can’t be a growing metropolis and have hundreds of thousands of acres of irrigated agriculture in the central state.”

Cities in the region are already taking steps to adjust to the new reality of less water. Arizona is banking river water in underground aquifers depleted by pumping for irrigation. By 2027, Las Vegas will ban “nonfunctional” grass lawns. Many cities are investing in wastewater reuse. And negotiations are underway on building seawater desalinization plants in nearby Mexico. 

Think this can never happen here? It already is. A significant drop in river inflows into the Highland Lakes, which supplies water to almost 2 million Central Texans, has water experts concerned.

Sources: Reporting by USA Today, CNN, and Bloomberg Quint, with additional information from the Arizona Daily Star, the National Park Service, and the Journal Science.