“I’ve lived in the area for 27 years,” said Karen Shultz, executive director for the Lake Travis Chamber of Commerce. “I can tell you that it’s progressively getting worse.”
Compared to previous years, this has been the worst year-to-date inflow year ever recorded, according to the Central Texas Water Coalition. Records date back to 1942, when water inflow to the lake averaged around 65.79 billion gallons during peak months in late spring. In May 2022, the water inflow into Lake Travis was approximately 2.1 billion gallons, according to the CTWC.
“I know firsthand that tourism is affected by this,” Shultz said. “Even 15-20 years ago, we would have major traffic around our roadways from Thursday to Sunday evening as people went back and forth from the lake with their boats. Today, even with more people moving to Austin, the traffic is comparatively low.”
For businesses, this can affect people’s livelihood and wages.
Montina Beach on Lake Travis is a small bed and breakfast on the north side of Hudson Bend by Hudson Harbor. The property is owned by Phyllis Lacey. According to Lacey’s team, business for the summer and fall season was noticeably slower than last year’s busy season.
The biggest impact has been on marina owners and managers who are having to jump through major hoops to keep the marinas usable, said Kayla Remillard, the office manager of Keep Austin Wet in Hudson Bend. Remillard said the rental shop has had to cancel pickups due to sections of the lake being too narrow to navigate safely.
Low lake levels decrease visitors and value and can impact government revenue substantially, according to an economic impact report conducted by the Lake Travis Coalition after the 2011 drought 10 years ago.
The report shows that Lake Travis is a significant economic engine, and when it is low, it costs state and local governments $207.2 million in lost revenue and $1.7 million in lost sales tax revenue annually. In addition, the report also said when lake levels remain below 660 feet, there are 350,000-375,000 fewer Travis County park visits, which can result in up to 29 lost jobs for each 10% drop in park visits.
Since the most recent study on the consequences of low water levels was done over 10 years ago, there is a real need to conduct a new survey on the impact to Lake Travis businesses, said Landria Page, a member of the Lake Travis Chamber of Commerce, said in an email.
In addition to repercussions to the business and financial sector, Schultz said there is an issue of safety. The Lighthouse Restaurant & Lounge, an American and Mexican restaurant near Briarcliff, had a 75%-80% reduction in boat traffic coming to the restaurant this season, she said.
“The water was so low the boats just couldn’t get into the cove,” Schultz said.
In mid-October 2021, Lake Travis was approximately 72.5% full. One year later, the lake is about 46.6% full, according to the Lower Colorado River Authority. The LCRA manages the Highland Lakes system, comprised of several local lakes including Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan, which act as water reservoirs and provide water to the area’s utilities.
“We have good years and bad years, droughts in some and not in others,” Schultz said.
In addition to the effect on property values, taxes, schools and local government, Schultz said she does not want to see more businesses closing.
“In the last 10-12 years, we’ve lost five or six businesses because of low water levels,” she said. “We can’t control mother nature, but we can work with groups like CTWC to plan for the future.”
Effects of the drought
There are three primary areas affected when water levels in Lake Travis remain low for a significant period of time. These include:
- Reduced property values and associated tax revenues for schools and local governments
- Lost jobs and loss of revenue for businesses
- Significant increase in fire risk due to low water accessibility
The financial impact
Low lake levels decrease visitors and value, a report by the Lake Travis Coalition after the 2011 drought showed. When levels are low, governments could lose up to:
- $21.9 million in total fiscal revenue
- $1.7 million lost sales tax revenue
- $45,000 from decreased hotel receipts
- $120,000 from less visitors ordering mixed drinks
- Source: Lake Travis Coalition/Community Impact