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Water Utility’s Meszaros outlines worst-case drought scenarios

Friday, October 4, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Austin Water Utility Director Greg Meszaros offered Austin City Council members a grim view of the lingering regional drought, and the potential effects it might have should Central Texas not see significant rainfall in the near future.


In addition to near-certain mandated cuts for so-called firm wholesale water customers of the Lower Colorado River Authority – mostly municipalities who contract with the organization for water supplies – Meszaros showed Council members two bleak scenarios. One, an unlikely proposition that projects the difficult conditions the area experienced in 2011 over the next six years, suggests that the Highland Lakes could be empty by 2018.


“This is not your grandfather’s drought,” Meszaros told Council members.


The statement is a loaded one. LCRA officials currently benchmark drought conditions against the so-called drought of record that gripped the region in the 1950s – when many of the decision makers’ grandfathers would have been concerned with the situation. Meszaros told Council members that LCRA could declare a drought worse than drought of record – the point at which Highland Lakes storage declines below 600,000 acre feet — as early as November.


According to Meszaros, Highland Lakes storage has never dropped below 621,000 acre feet. An acre foot is roughly 325,000 gallons.


When LCRA declares a drought worse than drought of record, it kicks off a process that would end in a mandate that all firm water customers reduce consumption by 20 percent. With current conservation efforts in effect, the City of Austin may already be at that level.


Meszaros added that, should the drought continue – and should lake levels continue to decline – LCRA’s board of directors could elect to install further conservation mandates. He suggested that eventuality could come when the lakes reach a combined storage level of 500,000 acre feet.


These more dramatic cutbacks could extend drought effects to power generation. Two Austin Energy plants – Decker and Fayette – rely on LCRA water for operations. Meszaros told Council members that a conservation mandate of 20 percent may have little effect on the plants. However, he added that a drop to 30 percent could be more difficult for those facilities to handle.


Though Meszaros was careful to point out that he was perhaps not the best spokesperson for Austin Energy, he also noted that the utility could consider using reclaimed water or groundwater to help mitigate a drought cut. Meszaros further suggested that city officials could look to purchase power from the grid as an alternative option.


“Everything is on the table,” he said.


That includes aggressive pursuit of legislative measures that could preserve water for upstream municipalities against agricultural needs in Southeast Texas. Rice farmers from that region of the state faced LCRA water cutoffs in each of the past two years.


Council Member Chris Riley wondered if the contract signed by the City of Austin with LCRA contains any measures that would allow the city to have a say in LCRA’s downstream policies. Meszaros told Riley and his colleagues that he would rather brief them on that possibility in closed session.


Council Member Laura Morrison expressed some concern about the cost that power purchases could bring to Austin Energy ratepayers. Riley called for a fuller discussion of Austin Energy impacts at a Council AE Committee hearing.


Meszaros also noted that the water utility was preparing for mandatory water cuts. Among the tools available to Council members are new Stage 3 and 4 drought declarations – eventualities that would allow the utility to restrict watering to hand watering only (Stage 3) or eliminate outdoor watering all together.


The utility has also expressed concerns about the fiscal impact that mandated water cuts could bring to the utility. Should the city face such dramatic measures, water utility officials have hinted that they would need a special drought rate. (See In Fact Daily, Aug. 22).


Meszaros continued to tell Council members that spring 2014 would be the “pivot” – the point at which city officials would have to make a decision about what measures they will take should the drought continue.


He added that the utility would keep the city’s boards and commissions posted about the situation, and that water officials would be back in the first quarter with another update.

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