Live in Central Texas? News flash: your water supply is at risk!
"Water is nonpartisan": Shannon Hamilton, exec director, Central Texas Water Coalition
Illegal and private dams, continuing drought, shifting rainfall patterns away from Austin among factors threatening water supply
by Mike Killalea, NSD president
No matter where you live in Central Texas, your water supply is at risk. That loud-and clear message spearheaded Shannon Hamilton’s presentation to the North Shore Democrats of Travis County on Oct 14. Hamilton is the executive director of the Central Texas Water Coalition (CTWC).
CTWC advocates for responsible water management policies, equitable pricing, and greater conservation by all (centralteaswatercoalition.org).
The Highland Lakes have not been full since October 2019, she said, and it took two hurricanes in 2018 to accomplish this.
And maintaining what we have is also an elusive goal. “In August (2023), we were not going to let Lake Travis go below 630 feet,” Hamilton explained. “Within a week, we were already at 629 feet.”
Unfortunately, the prospects for completely replenishing the lakes in the near, medium, or long term seem increasingly out of reach. A combination of factors have been at work.
First, inflows have dramatically declined into Highland Lakes. Second, huge increase in population and business growth. Austin is now the nation’s tenth-largest city. The climate continues to become dryer and warmer.
And two key items that receive less attention are depletion due to releases down basin, and, incredibly, the proliferation of upstream dams that reduce our inflow.
Some of these dams are illegal. KXAN recently published a story, for example, about an illegal dam in Mason County blocking water from refilling the Highland Lakes.
Here’s the link: https://tinyurl.com/46f7ts5f
The really shocking part was that the reporters were on the trail of yet another illegal dam when they stumbled upon this one.
Nine of the 10 worst annual inflows into Highland Lakes have occurred since 2006, Hamilton’s data showed. 2022 was the worst ever, with only 35 billion gallons flowing into the lake network.
Counting on rainfall to save us? Think again, Hamilton advises. The forecast is dismal:
I-35 corridor: The new divider between wet and dry
Here is more disturbing news. Historically, Hamilton said, the 100th meridian, roughly marks the boundary between the semi-arid West, and the wetter climates in the east. The 100th Meridian has long been used as shorthand to refer to that arid-humid boundary.
Today, however, that boundary has shifted two longitudinal degrees to the eastern 98th Meridian. This longitude closely overlays I-35.
Right atop us, in other words.
Even a full lake is no solution
Let’s say the lakes miraculously fill up. Sorry. The stubborn problem remains, Hamilton said. Unfortunately, current modeling uses historical data; but we are in a new normal of longer droughts and less rain.She called for revising the water-management plan of the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) to provide more protection for longer periods.
How about El Niño? Sorry, amigo. The Little Boy will likely not help. El Niño’s effects are apparently diminishing for Central Texas, although the data curve is a roller coaster. In 2009, Lake Travis increased a whopping 23 feet, from 629 feet to 652 feet. Six years later, in 2015, the lake only deepened by 7 feet. Even earlier, in 2002, the lake only increased by 2 feet, from 677 feet to 679 feet, she said. Clearly, El Niño is unpredictable.
Who sets water policy?
Our water policy is set by four alphabet-soup agencies: LCRA; Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ); Region K Water Planning Group; and the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB).
What’s Region K? Us and neighboring counties, up- and downstream: Bastrop, Burnet, Blanco, Colorado, Fayette, Gillespie, Hays (partial), Llano, Matagorda, Mills, San Saba, Wharton (partial), Williamson (partial), and Travis.
What’s the latest?
At the Sept 20 LCRA Water Operations and Board Meeting, five county commissioners urged LCRA to stop releases from Lakes Buchanan and Travis. While many residents attended and spoke, Hamilton reported, only one person spoke on behalf of LCRA.
However, LCRA General Manager Phil Wilson challenged the audience to find new water supplies. The remark strikes this author as a decidedly hapless and defensive remark.
Stop gambling with our water!
Hamilton argued that LCRA water accounting policies are overly optimistic and risky. These include selling water until the lakes are empty, and counting on subterranean Arbuckle Reservoir to support upper basin demand. And we can’t use historical inflow data, because it’s unreliable in today’s climate.
Worst of all, LCRA has planned no new water supplies for the Upper Basin.
It’s an embodiment of the saying credited to Mark Twain, “Whiskey’s for drinking; water’s for fighting over.”
What can we do?
First, contact your local and state officials and LCRA. Conserve.
Join CTWC by donating and volunteering. The North Shore Democrats’ web page has three downloads available to you from CTWC: a one-page info sheet, one explaining how you can help, and a volunteer form.
Don’t be shy to cross party lines to scream about this issue.
“Water is nonpartisan,” Hamilton said.
Links found in article:
Links to CTWC:
— Info sheet: one-page info sheet
— How you can help: how you can help
— \Volunteer form: volunteer form
Links to government agencies:
— Lower Colorado River Authority: www.lcra.org
— Texas Commission on Environmental Quality: https://www.tceq.texas.gov/
— Texas Water Development Board: https://www.twdb.texas.gov/
— Region K Water Planning Group: https://www.regionk.org/
—KXAN story about an illegal dam in Mason County: https://tinyurl.com/46f7ts5f
— KXAN investigative report by Chief Meterologist David Yeomans on the water crisis and on LCRA: https://tinyurl.com/mrxrw5h9
— CBS Austin — “Dwindling water levels in Highland Lakes threaten livelihoods”: https://tinyurl.com/ydkzee8w
— Texas Tribune — Llano River communities fight former oil executive’s plan for a private dam: https://tinyurl.com/3nw6cuzx