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LCRA says worsening drought could bring more serious consequences

Monday, August 29, 2011 by Michael Kanin

Officials from the Lower Colorado River Authority predict that the combined water levels of Lakes Buchanan and Travis could drop below 600,000 acre feet of water by early spring 2012. Should that happen, it would trigger a number of drastic reductions in water usage across Central Texas.


“That would put us in drought worse than drought of record conditions,” the LCRA’s Executive Manager of Integrated Resource Planning, Suzanne Zarling, told the LCRA board last week. “When we hit that trigger, if we do, a couple of things will happen. It signals that the board will make a declaration of a drought worse than drought of record condition at which time water availability for irrigation would cease, and we would ask our customers to begin a pro rata reduction in the amount of water that they use.”


The pro rata percentage would be 20 percent per user. Board Director Steve Balas wondered if that might affect LCRA customers who depend on water for power generation. “We have to cut back our water use at power plants too, right?” he asked.


LCRA General Manager Becky Motal confirmed that that would be the case. “As it currently reads…the Water Management Plan provides that if you get to 600,000 acre feet…it would affect all customers, pro rata,” she said.


That news came along with word that water storage in the highland lakes had, as of Tuesday, dropped below 900,000 acre feet. That figure brings other, less dramatic reductions, including a request to so-called firm LCRA customers to “implement mandatory water use restrictions to achieve a 10-20 percent reduction in use.”


Zarling compared this to the already announced effort by the Austin Water Utility to implement Stage Two water restrictions on Sept. 6. “LCRA is also doing that with our own water systems,” she said.


At that board meeting the hottest topic was divestiture of LCRA’s small water and wastewater utilities. The other significant topic was the long-standing question of just how the utility should deal with its farm irrigation customers in a time of drought.


Amid calls from both sides of that argument, it became clear that the organization is facing its most serious water supply challenge in many years. Zarling offered comparisons of the 2011 drought to both 2009, and the dry period in the 1950s that is most often referred to as the drought of record.


According to Zarling, the average yearly flow of water in to the highland lakes is just over 819,000 acre-feet. In 2009, that figure dropped to 183,254 acre-feet. Through July of 2011, the lakes had seen just 73,694 acre-feet of inflow.


“We’d have to have more than 53,000 (acre feet of inflow) every month through the end of the year to tie that…record for the…low,” she said.


Zarling added that the water level in Lake Travis could drop to between 624 and 629 feet above sea level by Jan. 1. The lowest reading on record is 614 feet, which was recorded in the 1950s.


The stats for Lake Buchanan were similarly bleak.

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