What Do You Do When a Town Runs Dry?

Photo by Terrence Henry/StateImpact Texas

A contractor trucks in water to a storage tank in Spicewood Beach, Monday, January 30.

Another milestone in the ongoing drought was reached yesterday when Spicewood Beach, a small community of about 1,100 people outside of Austin, ran out of water. As trucks began rolling in to replenish the town’s water tank, questions inevitably arose. It’s still not clear how things ended up here (the agency that owns the system blames the drought; locals say the wells running dry is due to mismanagement), and it’s unknown how long it will take for a real solution to be found.

For answers on some of those questions we turned to Barney Austin, Director of Surface Water Resources Division at Intera, a water resources and environmental consulting firm out of Austin. He typically consults for water systems on how to best avoid situations like the one Spicewood Beach currently finds itself in.

He spoke recently with Andy Uhler of KUT News, who has been co-reporting on Spicewood Beach with StateImpact Texas.

Q: Who’s going to pay for the trucking in of water?

A: You know, I really don’t know. Someone’s going to have to pay for it, clearly. And someone is going to have to pay for the development of new water management strategies.  Ultimately, the rate-payer will have to lift that burden.

Q: Is there a long-term solution, other than rain?

A: Obviously rain fixes everything, right? But, as for the long-term – what we really need to figure out is whether we’ve got a trend toward lower in-flows and a hotter and dryer climate, or whether or not we’re going to be back to normal within a year or two. We’re all hoping that we’ll be back to a normal situation within a year or two, but until that happens, we’re going to be scrambling with these emergency measures and we’re going to be trying to figure out what we can do to augment supplies and accelerate conservation measures.

Q: Where is the water that’s being trucked in to Spicewood Beach going to come from?

A: I don’t know. But I assume it’ll be from another of Lower Colorado River Authority’s (LCRA) treatment plants. [The LCRA owns the water system in Spicewood Beach and manages water for much of Central Texas.]

Q: Is another party going to be out water because they’re trucking this water in?

A: I’m sure what will happen is that the water treatment plant will draw water out of the lake directly. The water will be treated somewhere and trucked into the community. So, it won’t be trucked in from a long way away, they’re not coming in from Houston, I shouldn’t think. LCRA is not going to be short of water. There are all sorts of emergency measures in place. And there could be a loosening of rules and regulations for these types of emergency situations. It’s not going to cost the people providing the water. Someone is going to have to pay for the trucking.

Q: So, a loosening of regulations would be where the TCEQ (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) comes in?

A: Right, they need to make sure that the water is of adequate quality, obviously, but there’s a loosening of permit requirements and things like that, in order to make sure that community gets the water that it needs.

Q: Is this drought completely new ground for you?

A: You know it really is. I was at the Texas Water Development Board doing surface-water planning. This is not unprecedented for a community to have water have to be trucked in to them. But the situation that we’re facing right now with a community living right on a highland lake – a lake that has so much water – running out of water is kind of unusual and it is kind of worrying.

Q: There’s certainly an irony about being able to see the Colorado River from a community that has run out of water…

A: And there’s a real complication with this situation because, in theory, groundwater wells should be drawing from groundwater way down, a few hundred feet, usually. And then there are surface water diversions that are diverting from rivers and lakes. This situation is a little bit different in that the well is almost certainly drawing lake water. So the whole regulation of surface water that’s being drawn out of a well is very complicated. You’ve got to figure out that exact interaction. And there’s a separate set of regulations as there is for ground water, so you can imagine how complicated it can get.

Q: How long will it take for us to recover from this drought? Are we looking at a year or two to recover? Longer?

A: There’s a progression of curtailments when we face this type of situation. At the moment it’s looking very likely that rice farmers in the lower part of the basin won’t get any irrigation water next year – or at least a severe curtailment of that irrigation water next year. They’re going to feel the economic impacts immediately. People around the lakes right now who may want to sell their property; they’re already feeling the impact. The city of Austin is having to implement very strict conservation measures, which also has an economic impact. So, economic impact is being felt very hard already. If we get another year like we’ve experienced in 2011, then those economic consequences are going to be extremely severe. The lakes won’t completely empty by the end of next year, but they’ll be very low and it’ll take a while for them to fill up again.

Q: When you say ‘a while’ there’s no telling how long?

A: There’s no telling. You know, it’s interesting because 2006 was a very dry year, 2008 was a very dry year. 2009 and 2010 were a little bit below average, and 2011 was very dry. But 2007 was a very wet year. And, despite the fact that it was so dry in 2006, the lakes filled up in 2007 and have ended up being progressively drawn down since that time. So, if you get a good gullywasher, like we call it in the business, a good rainfall over the entire watershed, those lakes can fill up pretty quickly.

Read more on Spicewood Beach running out of water here. And you can also read our topic page on the current Texas drought.

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