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Drought, low lake levels, drive city need for greater conservation

Friday, August 14, 2009 by Austin Monitor

Austin counted its 54th day in a row of temperatures at or above 100 degrees on Thursday. It’s hot and dry, but you’re going to have to ask for a glass of water in restaurants in order to get one beginning August 24 under new city water rules.


Drought conditions in Central and South Texas have become so severe that state, regional and local officials – including several area cities and the LCRA – are beginning to issue mandatory restrictions on water use. The deepest drought since the 1950s has caused water flows in most major area lakes and streams to drop to near-record low levels.


Authorities have warned that if current conditions persist, Barton Springs could run dangerously low by the end of 2010, endangering the city’s iconic swimming hole and jeopardizing its endangered salamanders. 


Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell is expected today to address the measures the city is taking to deal with the water shortage. Leffingwell is having a news conference at 10:30am at City Hall to talk about the new mandatory water restrictions. They include:  

  • Customers may only operate automatic irrigation systems between midnight and 10am on a designated outdoor water use day. Such usage is now allowed from 7pm to 10am.
  • Customers may not use an automatic fill valve to add water to an outdoor swimming pool, wading pool or pond.
  • Customers may not wash sidewalks, driveways, parking areas or other paved surfaces except to alleviate an immediate health or safety hazard.
  • Restaurants may not serve water unless requested by the customer.
  • Other restrictions also apply to specific water uses such as car washing and outdoor fountains.

Earlier this week, the Lower Colorado River Authority asked its 1.1 million water customers to cut their use by 25 percent. The Highland Lakes, which are managed by the LCRA, have lost a total of 900,000 acre feet of water from their normal capacity of 2.1 million acre feet.


Water flows into Barton Springs from the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer, which runs from the south bank of Lady Bird Lake into the northern half of Hays County. The agency in charge of that aquifer, the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, has taken measures to restrict excessive pumping from the aquifer by declaring a Critical Stage drought.


However, the aquifer is currently more than five feet below the Critical stage in the district’s prime measuring well. That could put the district into an Emergency Response situation, in which the BSEACD Board has wide latitude to order whatever cutbacks are necessary to protect the aquifer from over-pumping.


Officials say that the water flow measured at Barton Springs was 15 cubic feet per second this week. The normal flow is around 50 cfs. City officials predict that without significant rain, the flow could drop to 12 cfs or lower by the end of this year, and to around 5 cfs by 2010. The record low recorded at the springs was 9.6 cfs in March 1956.


LCRA officials say even though the situation is serious, it has not yet reached a crisis. The agency is primarily a wholesale water supplier, selling its water to cities and water districts. The entities each control how the water is distributed to end users, including commercial, industrial and residential users.


Almost all of the area cities and district that get water from LCRA have put mandatory restrictions in place to save water.


Even state officials have gotten in on the water-saving bandwagon. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality on Thursday suspended the ability of water rights holders from diverting water from the Brazos River basin. Farmers and ranchers will still have access to Brazos River water, but most other users who don’t have “Senior Water Rights” must cut out their water use.

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