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Highland Lakes' Levels Falling, LCRA Warns

At a press conference today, the Lower Colorado River Authority warned Austin and the rest of Central Texas to brace for continued drought. Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan, the region's major reservoirs, are currently 52 percent full, and dropping steadily.

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

The Lower Colorado River Authority, the water supplier for Austin and other Central Texas cities, held a press conference today updating falling lake levels, miniscule inflows and record drought in the Highland Lakes area. Its message: brace yourself. 

Texas is experiencing its driest nine months in history, and LCRA officials don't see much change in the coming months. However, they say this stretch is not (yet) as bad as the "drought of record," a benchmark still held by the devastating 10-year stretch from 1947 to 1957.

Becky Motal, the LCRA's new general manager,  said both Lake Buchanan and Lake Travis — the two key reservoir lakes — are fuller than they were during the drought of record, but still far below their average levels. This morning, the LCRA reported that the two lakes, combined, were 52 percent full.

Lake Travis water levels were at 642 feet as of this morning, 26 feet below average. If current weather patterns continue, the LCRA predicts it could be up to 30 feet below average by the end of September. Lake Travis’ record low was 614 feet in 1951, but the lowest it’s fallen in the past 20 years came in 2009, when it was measured at 629 feet. The LCRA is predicting the lake could fall below that 2009 mark by the end of the year.

The low lake levels are caused by a persistent shortage of rainfall and lack of inflow into the lakes, as well as the continued demands of cities like Austin and the even larger users, rice farmers far downstream.

Inflows are the estimated amount of water discharged from area creeks, rivers and streams, and the numbers are among the lowest in state history. The amount of total inflow the Highland Lakes receives from January to June on average is 731,658 acre-feet, but through June 2011 there’s been only 72,828 acre-feet, a mere 10 percent of normal. June’s inflows were particularly worrisome — the third lowest amount of inflow in any one month. Leah Manning, an LCRA river-management official, said inflows are expected to remain low going forward. 

As for the rainfall, it remains almost nonexistent: So far in July, the Austin area has received 0.01 inches of rainfall. The area has received slightly less than 11 inches of total rainfall since the beginning of October 2010, which is 17.45 inches below the average.

Bob Rose, LCRA’s chief meteorologist, said he’s not very optimistic that the numbers will take a turn for the better any time soon. After wrapping up the second warmest June ever, July has kept the area’s run of triple-digit degree heat intact. The extreme heat accelerates evaporation on the lakes, exacerbating the water-supply problems.

Rose said there’s no real end to the drought in sight, and that he was troubled by the possibility that the state may be trending back toward La Niña, a warm-ocean pattern, which would yield drier-than-normal winter months. Currently a national drought monitor classifies 99 percent of Texas to be in some level of drought, and a record 77 percent of Texas is in exceptional drought, the highest ranking.

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