Lake Travis: Austin’s water, Austin’s future

When I moved to Austin, Lake Travis reminded me of the Mediterranean Sea: blue, shining, magnificent. To see it now, empty, is not only sad, but a critical problem for Austin’s future, businesses & tourism. Real estate values on Lake Travis waterfront have dropped. Wells in towns such as Spicewood have run dry and our aquifer health is in jeopardy. It would be wise to consider these issues when buying Austin & Hill Country real estate.

The growing population of Austin has created a strain on Austin’s water resources. Between 2000 and 2010 Austin’s population grew by 20%, and it continues to be one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S.

Facing a 10 to 15 year drought, and perhaps longer, is a possibility. For if the drought continues not only Lake Travis will be dry but the Highland Lakes above Lake Travis as well in a few years’ time.

Jo Karr Tedder with The Central Texas Water Coalition says “we need new leadership and people who understand how serious this is.”

The LCRA and the State of Texas have compounded the problem- making things worse than they had to be during our drought years. History of the LCRA’s actions since 2008 (as well as earlier) shows millions of acres of water sent to rice farmers. FYI, water supply to these farmers is mandated by the state, not LCRA, but they are the negotiator of allocation and the sales price of water, they work hand-in-hand.

In 2011 after heavy rains Lake Travis was totally full and that year LCRA received water management approval from the State to release 141 billion gallons of water to rice farmers, a world record amount. Emergency measures followed by LCRA in 2012 when we had one of the hottest years on record. For the last two years “stored” water has been curtailed to the farmers from our lakes, but they continue to receive run-of-river water from the upper basin of the Highland Lakes.

Authorities are finding that we Austinites are conserving water, yet rising water costs abound; our water bills are double and triple the amount of other cities. Fresh water is a very critical issue for us, solutions are expensive. The LCRA has purchased land to build reservoirs for the farmers projected to cost $206 million in Wharton County, and a possibility of four more reservoirs. Who will pay the cost of these? Most likely it will not be the farmers.

Interestingly the Texas rice farmers consist of roughly 12 families who control the Texas rice market. Did you know that one serving of rice takes about 25 gallons of water to grow? And those farmers submerge their crops in 5 feet of water- mainly to control bugs and weeds. What a waste!

The Texas Legislature has approved a constitutional amendment to take $2 billion from the state’s rainy day fund to invest in water infrastructure. In November, voters can decide on this measure.

Meanwhile, concerned citizens should get involved. Watch the LCRA website for updates on the drought. We can also put pressure on our Senators and leaders. It’s not only an Austin issue but a state problem.
Aside from wishing for a hurricane, let’s find a way to save our precious resource and make the lakes healthy once again. We need to plan, have good leadership, and make strategies that assure Austin’s Lakes and our water supply prosper for years to come.

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