Texas Drought Not Abating, Water Supplier Warns

Water levels have dropped at Lake Travis because the drought, May 16 2011.
Water levels have dropped at Lake Travis because the drought, May 16 2011.

The Lower Colorado River Authority, a major supplier of water for Central Texas, warned today that the drought gripping the state is likely to continue for months and urged its customers to conserve water.

"We don't see the drought letting up anytime soon," said Tom Mason, the organization's general manager, at a press conference in Austin. October to April, he said, was the "driest seven-month period in recorded Texas history," and February to April was the driest such stretch ever for Austin, which is among the cities supplied by from the LCRA's lakes. (Last month was also Austin's warmest April ever on record, the LCRA says.)

A heavy rain that pelted Austin one day last week does not signal the end of the drought, Mason said. It had "no noticeable effect" on Lake Travis and caused Lake Buchanan, the other big LCRA reservoir, to rise only a few inches. Levels in the two lakes have fallen from 1.6 million acre feet in January to 1.4 million in May — a drop of 12.5 percent. This trajectory recently prompted the LCRA to call on its city customers to voluntarily reduce their water usage by 5 percent. However, the two lakes' levels are still higher than they were in early summer 2009, when another bad drought struck.

Bob Rose, the LCRA's chief meteorologist, said that unusually dry conditions are expected to continue into the summer and possibly into the fall. While La Niña, an intermittent weather phenomenon cited by meteorologists as a chief reason for the current drought, has abated, some models show La Niña picking back up again in the fall. One glimmer of hope — from the point of view of rainfall, anyway — is that an unusually strong hurricane season is expected this year in the Gulf, and it could start as early as June.

"This may be our best bet of getting some significant rain in our area," Rose said.

Already, Austin has asked customers to conserve water: homeowners are limited to two days a week for watering. Suzanne Zarling, the LCRA's manager of water services, said that irrigation customers downstream — rice farmers, for example — could see restrictions on their use starting in January if the drought continues. The farmers have not yet been required to cut back. Further restrictions could also kick in for Austin and other cities at that time.

The LCRA stresses that conservation is important. However, it says, there will still be enough water for cities that need it. The state water plan requires water suppliers to be able to last through a drought as bad as the "drought of record" — a stretch from 1947 to 1955 that is considered the worst in recorded state history. The current drought is "intense," said Rose, but does not nearly match that drought in length.

 

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