Photo by Joe Lanane
Lake Travis at lowest level to start season since 1964
The lowest Lake Travis water levels in nearly 50 years are not enough to deter Volente business owners who expect to bounce back from the worst known drought in Texas history.
The unofficial boating season kicked off Memorial Day weekend, when the water level was 643.11 feet above mean sea level, the lowest mark at that time of year since 1964, according to Lower Colorado River Authority data. The sinking water levels plagued Volente businesses last year, Riviera Marina co-owner Janet Caylor said.
“To say the marinas haven’t been impacted would be inaccurate,” Caylor said. “Last year, lake-area businesses were devastated, and some didn’t survive.”
But there is a renewed sense of optimism among lake-based business owners, she said, despite ongoing struggles due to last year’s drought. Emergency water management plans will help keep more water in Lake Travis this year, Caylor said, rather than flow downstream to rice farmers who used more than half the water drained last year. Also, long-term measures have been proposed to better sustain high lake levels.
“It’s still beautiful out there, and there’s certainly a lot of water to recreate and enjoy your boats—and I think everybody’s pretty ready to do that,” she said. “That said, this is a hydrological drought, and LCRA policies really exacerbated it.”
Debating a drought
Lake Travis water levels dropped 40.62 feet msl in 2011 and remained stagnant much of this spring until a steady string of storms helped elevate the lake slightly. Water levels are still above the lake’s historical minimum, 614.18 feet msl on Aug. 14, 1951, according to LCRA data, but well below the 671.03 feet msl average water level for this time of year.
The majority of lake water drained last year went toward agriculture, LCRA spokeswoman Clara Tuma said. Specifically, rice farmers in Colorado, Matogorda and Wharton counties used 60 percent of the water drained from Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan—compared with 28 percent of water drained for municipal use, she said.
“Lake Travis is the only [Highland] lake that stores floodwaters, so the levels of the lake go up and down with the rains,” Tuma said. “When it doesn’t [rain], we use water that’s stored there to supply the needs of customers.”
But because there was not enough stored water in the lakes by March 1, an emergency order temporarily blocked any water from being drained downriver for agriculture use. The measure immediately helps lake businesses, said Jo Karr-Tedder, president of the Central Texas Water Coalition.
“It’s a temporary fix like a Band-Aid, but hopefully businesses will be able to recover some of the loss they had because 2011 was devastating,” she said.
CTWC members helped lobby for the emergency measure, and a new LCRA-approved water management plan awaits approval by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. TCEQ declared the proposal “administratively complete” April 19, and the plan is now under technical review, which can take up to 12 months.
If the plan is approved as written, there will be an appeal, said Ronald Gertson, a rice farmer and chairman of the Colorado Water Issues Committee, which represents the rice farmers. While Gertson called the March 1 deadline to curtail agricultural water use “understandable under the circumstances,” he said the plan at TCEQ does not accurately reflect what he understood to be the agreement made after the 18-month process.
“[The LCRA has] a legal obligation to provide irrigation water,” Gertson said. “They do not have a legal obligation to provide high lake levels.”
The proposal eliminates “open supply,” the practice of not restricting stored water from flowing to downstream farms when the lakes are above a defined trigger point. CWIC seeks a better compromise, Gertson said.
“We’re not arguing we take the cap completely away,” he said. “We’re just arguing if there’s some water available above the trigger, then make more and more available as those levels climb.”
Businesses stay afloat
As a result of the drought, many business owners made adjustments to accommodate the decreased levels. Several marinas are in their low-water configurations, meaning they have detached from their customary locations to deeper waters. Boat owners are then ferried to the dock.
Cafe Blue, located next to Sandy Creek Yacht Club and Marina, reduced its operating hours and opened a second location in Bee Cave to help reduce overhead costs, co-owner Jason Landtroop said.
“Our level of business is pretty directly tied to the level of the lake,” Landtroop said. “When the lake is low, our business is low. When the lake is full, so are we.”
In the meantime, the Volente location will open only on Saturdays and Sundays, he said, which is when most business occurs. Other Volente businesses were less affected by the drought despite conditions.
Tom Gardiner and Alex McLaughlin of Volente Boat Club said flooding—not droughts—affected their operation more in their 10 years in business. The most difficult aspect of the recent drought has been overcoming negative perception, they agreed.
“Our members were not affected because they’ve been out in the water every day and know better,” Gardiner, the club’s owner, said.
Recent emergency measures helped ensure the lake will not be drained like last year, McLaughlin said. The only regret, he said, is that such precautions were not taken last year to prevent such drastic amounts of water from being used for agriculture.
“(Rice farmers) literally sucked the lake dry,” he said. “Had they not, the lake would likely still be full.”
Brian George, owner of Lake Travis Zipline Adventures, does not have any basis for comparison, having opened last July after a year-and-a-half of planning. At that point, George said he was too invested to turn back.
“[The drought] is something you have in the back of your mind,” he said. “But, when [you’re] starting a new business, you have millions of other things to worry about to be concerned about something you can’t control like Mother Nature.”
Volente Beach Water Park, on the other hand, has been open since 1993. Owner Rick Redmond said last year was the worst he has ever seen the lake. Fortunately for his business, the water park recycles most of the lake water it uses, he said.
“Things are starting to get better and better,” Redmond said. “We did OK last year, but we’re hoping to do even better this year.”
The rice farming industry, while successful last year, will be drastically hindered by the decision this year to cut water off downstream, Gertson said. His farm is expected to operate at 40 percent capacity because of alternative water supplies, while most other rice farmers will be without any crops this season, he said.
That should result in a 3 percent to 4 percent reduction in rice supply nationally, he said, and many international customers will also see a sharp decrease.
“It’s really eerie to drive out across the prairie here and see absolutely nothing,” Gertson said. “There’s nothing but weeds and plowed ground. Never before has that been the case in anybody’s memory that’s alive today.
“It’s a grim reminder of the circumstances we find ourselves in.”
LCRA board-approved changes to the water management plan
- Use two trigger points during the year to determine how much stored water from the lakes is available for agriculture, mostly downstream rice farming. One trigger point, Jan. 1, would be used for the first rice crop, and a second, June 1, would be used for the second crop. The current plan contains only a Jan. 1 trigger point.
- Eliminate “open supply,” the practice of not restricting stored water from the lakes for downstream agriculture when the lakes are above a defined trigger point. Stored water from the lakes for the downstream agricultural operations would be limited depending on the demands of the cities and industries throughout the Colorado River basin.
- Ask firm water customers, mostly cities and industry, to reduce water use consistent with their drought plans only after Highland Lakes water for agriculture is restricted. They pay considerably more than farmers and other “interruptible” customers pay.
- Use two different levels in the new plan to set triggers based on the actual demand of cities and industry. The current plan is based on a single-demand projection looking 10 years in the future. Using two levels is a more adaptive way to look at expected water needs. This approach responds to growth in water use and could make more water available for agricultural needs until it is needed by cities and industry.
- Incorporate new scientific studies that better reflect the needs of the river and bay environment.