As published in Lake Travis View, November 2023.
We are each faced with making personal choices every day, but those who are tasked with making decisions that affect others in life-altering ways bear the heavy burden of responsibility. For Central Texas water industry leaders during this past summer, we faced unprecedented challenges set by record-breaking heat coupled by continued population growth, leading to more strain on traditional water resources such as rivers, lakes and aquifers.
Fueled by water supply constraints, decision makers used the available policies and technology to help manage the water supply while keeping their customers’ taps flowing. Were all the right choices made? We heard from many critics and some supporters expressing their opinions of our attempts to address these challenges. And the challenges are not over; if we don’t get significant rainfall — in the right areas — this season, we’re going to be facing tougher decisions next summer.
Historically, Texas is prone to extended periods of drought eased by flooding events. In fact, the past 20 years have been dominated by “abnormal dryness,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. But in this same timeframe, the Texas Hill Country’s population has also doubled, according to a recent State of the Hill Country report. It’s becoming increasingly important that when we do get rain, we hold onto the supplied water for as long as possible because it’s never guaranteed when the next rainfall event will occur.
the challenges are not over; if we don’t get significant rainfall — in the right areas — this season, we’re going to be facing tougher decisions next summer.
In October, the Lakeway Municipal Utility District hosted an open house. We had presenters at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. every day for five days covering topics from weather forecasting to drought-tolerant native landscaping and staying safe during a flood or wildfire. It was the third time we hosted this type of event this year in an effort to help emphasize to our customers the importance of water conservation efforts they can implement in their own lives.
Of course, we have other educational efforts throughout the year as well: a newsletter, banners along the main boulevards in the community we serve, pamphlets at our customer service office, a website and routine appearances in the city of Lakeway’s communication efforts, as well as this column. However, attendance at the open house was low. This may be because we all live in a busy world and habits are hard to break. If the information is not perceived as having immediate value or impact on our lives, we tend to ignore it.
The answer to getting out of this seemingly persistent drought starts with more rain, but it continues through habit changes from every person who depends on traditional water sources. According to the Texas Water Development Board, half or more of household water use during the summer months is directed outdoors, primarily to keep lawns green, so to reduce the demand on our water supply, we stepped up our communication and enforcement of irrigation restrictions.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality requires every water utility to maintain and uphold a Drought Contingency Plan containing specific criteria for the initiation and termination of drought response stages. Because our source water, Lake Travis, is managed by the Lower Colorado River Authority, our plan’s trigger levels are based on the current LCRA Water Management Plan.
In an August 14, 2023, news release, the LCRA announced the combined storage in lakes Travis and Buchanan, the two water supply reservoirs in the Highland Lakes, fell below 900,000 acre-feet, or about 46% of capacity, reaching the lowest combined storage since 2015. With this new trigger level, the LCRA requested that all of its firm water customers — mostly municipalities, water districts and industries, including Lakeway MUD — reduce use by 10% to 20% and implement mandatory water restrictions. Long before LCRA’s announcement, in September 2022, Lakeway MUD’s decision-makers already had implemented one-day-per-week irrigation restrictions, anticipating the continuation of water supply shortages into the upcoming summer.
To meet LCRA’s constraints, many impacted utilities, including Lakeway MUD, stepped up enforcement efforts by sending out excess irrigation notices, issuing penalty fees (or even shutting off water) for noncompliance and implementing drought rates. While some residents relayed praise for holding high water users accountable, this sudden change took many customers by surprise, leading to feelings of resentment.
According to the LCRA River Operations Report, at time of submission, the combined storage in lakes Travis and Buchanan sits at approximately 846,000 acre-feet, or about 42% of capacity. With over 1.4 million people relying on the Highland Lakes for drinking water, where do you think we’ll be next summer if the rain fails to fill the lakes before then? It’s easy to blame the decision-makers for the low lake levels, but we encourage you to reassess the burden of this responsibility and consider if we might find ourselves in a different situation if more people were using less water, especially to irrigate their lawns. It’s a habit we must break to help overcome the guaranteed cycles of drought by relying less on traditional water resources to sustain landscaping choices that don’t make sense for the climate we live in.
Written by Stephanie Threinen, public information liaison for the Lakeway Municipal Utility District. Earl Foster is the general manager of LMUD.