Editor's note: This story was updated to correct the enforcement of water restrictions in Cedar Park.

Central Texans are surviving one of the hottest summers recorded, blazing grass fires and ongoing drought conditions this year.

Amid the excessive heat, both Austin and Cedar Park residents are facing some of the most intense drought restrictions in about a decade. In response, local leaders are increasing conservation measures to secure water for years to come.

“I’m not immediately concerned about [water], but we are putting in place contingency factors should the drought continue to get worse,” said Eric Rauschuber, Cedar Park’s director of public works and utility administration.

Two-minute impact

Central Texas was hit with a double threat this summer: record-breaking high heat and little rainfall. The region has seen temperatures over 100 degrees nearly every day since July 8, causing increased evaporation of local water reservoirs, dried-out soil and increased wildfire risk.

Lakes Travis and Buchanan collectively dipped to 44% capacity in August, the lowest they’ve been since 2013, according to the Lower Colorado River Authority. Other regional water sources, including the Edwards Aquifer, Lake Georgetown and S•tillhouse Hollow Lake, are similarly low.

“Given how long our [rainfall] deficits go back and how significant they are, we’ll continue to see drought impacts through the end of this year, almost guaranteed,” National Weather Service meteorologist Keith White said. “The good news about the El Niño, though, is that it will tilt our odds toward wetter conditions by the time we get into the winter time. So we can hopefully start to make up some of those deficits in December, January and February of next winter.”

Exceptional drought—or Level D4 drought—is the most intense drought category on the U.S. drought monitor and occurs when the region experiences 98% dryness. As of Sept. 14, 100% of Williamson County is still experiencing exceptional drought, impacting nearly 423,000 residents across the county.

Diving in deeper

Austin and Cedar Park solely rely on surface water purchased from the Lower Colorado River Authority from the Highland Lakes, causing customers to be impacted more by low lake levels compared to cities with diversified water sources.

To combat raging heat temperatures, Cedar Park moved to Stage 3 drought restrictions in August, and Austin remains in Stage 2.

Cedar Park leaders have boosted conservation efforts recently with social media outreach, educational programs and a program providing financial credits to residents with rain barrels.

Starting in September, Cedar Park also began implementing water compliance controls in which city employees conduct conservation patrols, and if they observe non-compliance, customers are notified of their usage by mail.

Austin Water Assistant Director Kevin Critendon said because the city relies solely on surface water, the utility is constantly managing lake levels, even outside of drought conditions.

After the region’s last major drought in 2011, city leaders put together a task force—now called Water Forward—with a goal to plan Austin’s water needs for the next 100 years.

Current situation

Cedar Park has contractually secured sufficient water with the LCRA to serve the city’s full build-out population, Rauschuber said. Roughly $4 million will be spent in the coming year to address aging water infrastructure and increase utility reliability.

Cedar Park has also invested in numerous Brushy Creek Regional Utility Authority projects, including a pipeline that would increase Cedar Park’s capacity from 8.7 million gallons per day to 11.2 million.

For Austin, officials are considering pumping excess treated water into an underground aquifer to store for later use after drought conditions improve.

What's next

Central Texas will need to see weeks of heavy rainfall, specifically near Fredericksburg to refill water basins, to end drought conditions, said Aaron Abel, water services manager for the Brazos River Authority.

“That’s what we’re hoping for, but in the meantime, we’ve got to do what we can to extend the last of the water supply in these reservoirs, and that’s by enacting our drought contingency plans and trying to reduce water use,” Abel said.

Regional water solutions

To secure future water supplies, Williamson County leaders are seeking to reserve water from the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer about 50 miles east of the Austin area. The plan would require millions of dollars, a permit from the groundwater conservation district and easements.

"[The Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer] is the future water for Williamson County if I was betting,” Round Rock Utilities Director Michael Thane said.

Individual solutions

Kristen Parkhurst, marketing director for lawn care services company Emerald Lawns, offered tips on how residents can preserve their lawns and conserve water.
  • Plant drought-tolerant grasses, such as Bermuda and Zoysia.
  • Utilize top dressing, which adds nutrients back into soil after it's been depleted by the sun.
  • Aerate soil to loosen compact soil, which restricts root growth.
  • Consider xeriscaping, a landscaping process that requires little irrigation by utilizing succulents, mulch and other drought-tolerant plants.