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Who gets to use the water?

There’s a lot more demand for an increasingly limited supply.

Lake Austin

More than miles separate the rice farms of the Texas coast and the Highland Lakes, where the outward march of Austin is marked by each new house, strip mall and marina.

They are divided by how to share the water of the Colorado River, pitting agriculture against recreation in a state that values both.

Growers have turned on a new plan that would guide allocations in the lower Colorado basin for the next few decades, grousing loudly about water cutbacks to help preserve playgrounds. Meanwhile, those who live and work around Lakes Buchanan and Travis want guarantees of boater-friendly levels at the reservoirs.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will consider the plan by April. How the three-member panel rules could influence management of Lake Conroe and other popular reservoirs across the state.

The water fight reflects changes in Texas since farmers began drawing from the Colorado in 1885. The Lower Colorado River Authority built the lakes to generate power and tame floods in the 1930s, and the state’s population has surged since then, with more and more people moving into communities that barely existed, if at all, when the dams were constructed.

The state projects the population of the lower Colorado basin to double to 2.8 million people by 2060, and it is clear that there is not enough water to meet everyone’s needs.

“The issue is, Texas is a different place than when this system was set up,” said Andrew Sansom, executive director of the River Systems Institute at Texas State University. “We have to find a way to equitably allocate these shortages in a future that is nothing like the time of its origin.”

Growing population + drought + old rules = conflict. Obviously, agriculture is important, but I’m willing to bet that the revenue derived from tourism, recreation, and property taxes on lakefront real estate add up to a pretty penny, and will likely be more valuable on the whole than agriculture soon if it isn’t already. We know what we need to do – conservation, desalinization, not using treated water for irrigation, etc etc etc – and we know it will cost money and cause heartburn. We still have to do it.

You may be wondering if all that recent rain has helped these lakes recover. Sadly, not much.

Despite this already being the 11th-wettest July on record in Central Texas, officials said the unusually large amount of rain has not been enough to make a significant impact on lake levels in the area.

Bob Rose, chief meteorologist for the Lower Colorado River Authority, said Austin has received 5.82 inches of rain this month at Camp Mabry — a far cry from July 2011, when the city received 0.05 inches of rain.

[...]

LCRA spokeswoman Clara Tuma said Lake Austin received so much rain so quickly Sunday that officials were forced to open two floodgates to let out some of the water. The last time they did that was during Tropical Storm Hermine in September 2010, Tuma said.

However, because June was such a dry month and because the heaviest rains were not in the watershed, the storms did not make an appreciable impact on lake levels, she said. Lake Travis remains 28 feet below its historical July average.

Long way to go still. I’d be happy to send them some of our rain if I could, but then we might need it.

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