Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

It Will Take an Insane Amount of Rain Before the Highland Lakes Recover

Lake Travis is heading towards its lowest levels in history if we have a dry fall.

Photo courtesy of the LCRA

Lake Travis is heading towards its lowest levels in history if we have a dry fall.

Central Texas is having a pretty decent year, rain-wise. We’re sitting just below normal. And it’s been a good week, too: early Thursday, one part of Austin got over seven inches of rain.

So much rain fell over downtown Austin that the statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan along Lady Bird Lake looked like he was walking on water. It brought back memories of the Halloween floods last fall — back then Stevie was standing in water waist-deep. But these big rain events all have something in common: They really haven’t fallen where we need them most.

“The watershed that helps our water supplies isn’t here in Austin; it’s way up into the counties to the north of us. It’s the drainage that goes into Lakes Buchanan and Travis,” says John Hofmann, Executive Vice President of Water for the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA).

Hofmann says while the areas around the lakes got some decent rain earlier this summer, other than that it’s been pretty dry up there. So while Lake Austin is getting doused, the creekbeds that go into the Highland Lakes can stay relatively dry. Lake Travis has risen over a foot this week, and could go up another foot today. But it’s still nearly 40 feet below where it should be, and lower than it was a month ago.

And it’s not just where the water is falling that’s preventing the lakes from recovering. It’s the condition of the ground that it’s falling on.

If the ground is dry, it can soak that rain right up.

“You know, the water falls from rain. Some of it runs off into the reservoir, some of it recharges the groundwater. But a lot of it stays right near the surface. And it’s taken up by the plants. Or it just evaporates,” says Michael Young, an Associate Director at UT’s Bureau of Economic Geology.

“Even though 2014 so far has been near-normal precipitation or maybe a couple of inches behind,” Young says, “we’re getting no response from the reservoirs, and it’s because most of the water is soaking into the soil.”

Young is part of a team working on tools to better track soil moisture levels. He estimates that water lost from the soil could account for anywhere from 20 to 80 percent of the water losses during 2011, the driest year in Texas history.

“Outside of precipitation, [soil moisture] is one of the most important components of the water balance in this state,” Young says. “And we don’t know what that component is. It’s a complete black box across the state.”

Those water losses to dry soil continue today. “The first inch or two of rainfall in most of these events that we’ve had scattered around the summer are immediately soaked up by the soil,” says Hofmann with the LCRA. The rain this week has basically bought Central Texas a few weeks of water supply, he says.

All of this adds up to a struggling reservoir system for Central Texas. If you look at the water levels of Lake Travis over the years and graph them out, it’s almost like a heartbeat monitor. And starting in the mid-2000s, the lake looks likes it could use some life support.

If we have a dry fall, the Highland Lakes could reach their lowest levels by the end of December, and that would mean that from a reservoir standpoint, this drought is worse than the drought of record in the fifties.

So what would it take to bring the lakes back?

“A series of rain events that would result somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 to 20 inches of rainfall, widespread throughout that area, before we could see real meaningful improvement in our supplies,” says Hofmann with the LCRA.

There is a silver lining, however. Even though the lakes aren’t recovering yet, rainfall over the city still helps reduce the demands on them. It cools things down, reducing evaporation; it increases soil moisture, setting the stage for better runoffs next time it rains; and hopefully it keeps you from watering your lawn.

“We’re all optimistically watching the skies right now,” Hofmann says.

Mose Buchele contributed reporting. 


  • bernard townsend

    in the Midwest, when it rains the rivers fill up fast, within a day or two, the rivers return to the super dry looking creeks they were before it rained. the rainwater doesn’t sink in, it runs off.

    • jackw97224

      Yeah, water silos or impoundments/reservoirs in arid regions would seem to be good investments, especially where populations are growing.

    • In what part of the Midwest did you grow up in, because it doesn’t sound like any part of the much wetter Midwest I grew up in. Lakes are still always mostly full, and the rivers are rivers not creeks called rivers in places like Missouri and Illinois.

      • bernard townsend

        These are observed, not hypothetical, the rivers are so shallow from the long stretches between rains, can’t even go through some areas in a canoe. This is happening now.

  • jerald_wyoming

    More bureaucratic babble… Cut consumption and waste in Austin, that is the solution

    • rab

      I’m interested to know exactly how you propose cutting consumption and waste. Specific examples, in other words. The State Water Plan assumes we can gain back 34 % of our projected 2060 water shortage through conservation (including consumption and waste): 7% through munincipal reductions, 10 % via reuse, and 17 % through irrigation reductions. It would be instructive to know exactly how with real-world, specific examples.

  • LR

    People need to begin migrating to other parts of the country for food, water and shelter. Our ancestors did it for centuries…after raping the land and sucking all the ground water out over the last 100 years plus the earth is evolving so praying and wishing for this mars like environment to change for the better will not reverse itself.

    • JRJB

      There is going to be one HELL of a migration from California in the next decade or two unless things change. I don’t see how 40 million people can survive without water. And of course that will have ramifications on the rest of the country too.

    • Billy

      You first.

      • LR

        I did already..lived in the desert now live in a lush clean amazing area of the country. No water issues, have rose gardens and food gardens all summer.

        • All of US

          It does not take long to realize the issues and problems in California. I had left 3 years ago and it’s just so bad.

        • fidel bacon

          What state…I need out of Cali.

    • There is plenty of water for people.

      The lack of water is in regard to agriculture.

      In CA almost 80% of water goes to growing things like Almonds in the desert of the Central Valley.

      That sort of idiotic farming just like growing Rice along the dry Texas coast IS an unsustainable use of water resources.

      Fortunately neither count as a big part of either state’s economies.

      So for the “water crisis” to end, all that has to happen is for those farmers to switch to less water intensive crops.

  • Julius

    Too much immigration. It’s bad for the environment.

  • paul

    LCRA should come up with a way of pumping water back into the lakes by making reservoirs down stream. We have a lot of creeks that dump into the Colorado, This would benifit alot of people. Austin forget about high speed rail .

  • JCB

    Look at the data between how many cedar trees are now in the Highland Lakes watershed, how much water they use, and the correlation of how much water we need to fill the lakes. Until we control the cedars the lakes will never fill up. Our choices are to control them or just wait until the wildfires start.

  • amazing that people don’t know that vast majority of Water goes to growing crops, and agriculture is only a small part of the Texas economy in terms of total dollars.

    Solving the water crisis therefore is easy as obeying the laws of capitalism and ending the free water via laws that enshrine no cost water withdrawal by a few at the expense of everyone else.

    The lack of water regulation or laws governing the use of ground water are just a government subsidy in disguise giving people who use ground water a legal basis to do so.

    It isn’t a right. No one is entitled. If the state of Texas decides the law must change to ensure the people of Texas have enough water to drink and bathe then it will change.

    Once farmers are forced to pay the full cost of their supply of water they’ll grow crops that justify the water they need and allow them to make a profit that doesn’t depend on free water

  • Aloha Analytics

    This is because Austin is draining the Highland Lakes on overdevelopment. 2014 had 35.53 inches of rain for the year, historical average is 32.15 inches per year, drought is not the problem.

  • BobinIrving

    I predict rain in 2015. It will start the last part of April and continue to rain throughout the month of May. We will be out of drought by June 2015. Mark my words!

  • Kumar Vivek

    Amazing :) I adore the use of layout and type!

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