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LCRA says Central Texas drought worst on record

Thursday, February 19, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

The Lower Colorado River Authority announced Wednesday that, based on preliminary data from last year, it now considers the drought that has been afflicting Central Texas since 2008 to be the worst on record.

LCRA Executive Vice President of Water John Hoffman delivered the news to the public utility’s board of directors at a committee meeting. “Our critical period up until this morning … has always been considered the drought of the ’50s,” he said. “We now believe that we’re in the midst of it.”

As a result of the drought, Hoffman said, the LCRA has reduced its firm yield, or the amount of water it can safely supply its customers, from 600,000 to 500,000 acre-feet. An acre-foot equals approximately 326,000 gallons.

Hoffman explained that the critical period is the time period with the driest conditions and lowest flows into creeks, rivers, lakes and Matagorda Bay. The previous critical period was between 1947 and 1957.

The LCRA built reservoir lakes Buchanan and Travis in 1939 and 1942, respectively, to provide water to several large customers in the region, including the City of Austin. For the past four years, however, the board has asked the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for permission to limit releases from the lakes to downstream agricultural customers due to record low inflows.

Hoffman said that these and other measures have helped mitigate the drought’s impact on lake levels, which could otherwise be more severe. He credited this to “the difficult decisions that this board has made, the measures that have been implemented up and down the basin and the diligent efforts on the part of our customers to be able to curtail use at no small level of sacrifice.”

The LCRA reported that on Wednesday morning, combined storage was at 716,849 acre-feet, or about 36 percent of capacity. In comparison, an LCRA news release states that the all-time low was 621,221 acre-feet, or 32 percent of capacity, in 1952.

According to the Water Management Plan that the TCEQ adopted in 2010, if combined storage falls below 600,000 acre-feet before the drought improves, the LCRA board could implement a 20 percent cutback for all firm customers.

LCRA Vice President of Water Operations Ryan Rowney said that the earliest this could happen is May or June.

Perhaps ironically, firm customers have reduced usage by about 80,000 acre-feet since 2012. Austin, which has a contract that allows it to use 138,560 acre-feet per year, is by far the utility’s largest firm customer.

Board member Franklin Scott Spears Jr. made it a point to recognize the city’s accomplishments, especially considering its rapid population growth. “If there’s anybody from the City of Austin out there,” he said, “I just want to tip my hat to you, and I want everybody to know that the city is making tremendous strides toward trying to save water to help all of us.”

LCRA Board Chair Timothy Timmerman focused on the decrease in the utility’s firm yield as a major consideration for future decisions. “It could go down even further,” he said. “It’s just crystal clear how important it is for us to continue to develop new water supplies,” such as reservoirs and groundwater projects.

The LCRA is currently building a 40,000 acre-foot off-channel reservoir called the Lane City Reservoir in the lower part of the Colorado River basin, near Lane City. Hoffman said he hopes the reservoir will be operational by 2017.

According to its website, the LCRA has also drilled four wells at its Lost Pines Power Park in Bastrop County. Bastrop County allows the utility to pump up to 10,000 acre-feet of groundwater per year.

The LCRA is having its regular board meeting today at 8:30 a.m. at its headquarters on Lake Austin Boulevard. The board will then celebrate the LCRA’s 80th anniversary at 11 a.m. in the Agricultural Museum at the Capitol.

Photo by Bert Kaufmann from Roermond, Netherlands (DroughtUploaded by russavia) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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