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Series Explores Central Texas' Water Supply

The Texas Tribune and KUT 90.5 FM are running a five-part series this week on water supplies in Central Texas, looking specifically at the long-term future of two key lakes that supply water to Austin and other growing cities, as well as to rice farmers a few hundred miles down the Colorado River.

Low water levels at Lake Travis because of drought; photo taken May 16, 2011.

This week, the Texas Tribune and KUT 90.5 FM, Austin's NPR station, are running a five-part series on water supplies in Central Texas. Specifically, the series, called "Water Fight," looks at the long-term future of two key lakes that supply water to Austin and other growing cities as well as to rice farmers a few hundred miles down the Colorado River near the Gulf of Mexico. A 10-year plan for the lakes' future is currently being formulated, and it has brought out passionate arguments on all sides — particularly given the current drought.

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The first piece overviews the situation, and offers background on the Lower Colorado River Authority, the arm of the state that manages the lakes (see also the accompanying audio):

On the cliffs surrounding Central Texas’ large Lake Buchanan, a white ring extends some 13 feet above the shoreline, marking where the water reaches when the lake is full. At nearby Lake Travis, staircases that once led to the water’s edge now end well above it.

These two lakes serve as key water sources for dozens of cities and hundreds of farmers, as well as for several power plants. With Texas gripped by drought, water levels have fallen dramatically. Combined, the two lakes now hold 28 percent less water than their long-term average.

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The second piece looks at the plight of business owners and residents around the two lakes, Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan (see also the accompanying audio):

As Lake Buchanan drops lower each day amid one of the most intense droughts in Texas history, Donna Williams, owner of the Thunderbird Resort on the lake, fears for her business. What was once almost 20 feet of water in the nearby cove is now down to just a few feet, so there’s no convenient place to swim (except for the pool), and the boat ramp is dry. People call and ask if there’s water in the lake before making the trip.

“Basically, what you begin to pray every day and worry about every day is, ‘How are we going to be able to do this?'" Williams says. "How are we going to be able to keep doing this without water?’”

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The third piece examines the growing water needs of Austin and other cities, as well as their conservation efforts (see also the accompanying audio): 

The drought ... has heightened Austin officials' interest in a long-term water-management plan for the Highland Lakes, a key water source for this growing city and others in Central Texas. Austin gets its water from the lower Colorado River basin, and in times of drought, it relies heavily on Lake Buchanan and Lake Travis, where levels are now falling rapidly.

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In the fourth piece, Texas rice farmers explain their water needs — and the concessions they are prepared to make in the water talks (see also the accompanying audio):

In recent decades, the few hundred rice farmers in Matagorda, Wharton and Colorado counties have never lost one of their two crops due to reductions to their water supply, but that could change next year. If levels in the Highland Lakes, which include two key reservoirs near Austin, remain this low on Jan. 1, farmers' water allotments next year will be sharply reduced.

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The final piece in the series looks at a proposed coal plant that would be built just outside Bay City and is hoping, despite a recent setback, to get an amount of water from the LCRA that's equivalent to up to 15 percent of Austin's usage (see also the accompanying audio):

Behind a locked gate, on a flat, 1,200-acre parcel of land beside Texas’ Colorado River, cows graze and maize crops grow.

Four years from now, developers hope to begin operating a giant power plant here that will burn coal and petroleum coke. The $2.5 billion White Stallion Energy Center, they say, will help meet Texas’s growing need for electricity, and also provide jobs in a county with an 11.5 percent unemployment rate.

But the plans have stirred considerable controversy both locally and around the Colorado River basin. Texas is more welcoming of new coal plants than many other states, but nonetheless, plenty of people worry about air pollution and the huge amounts of water needed to operate a power plant.

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