In the three years since Leander resident Rick Wood moved into his home, he’s transformed his backyard into a garden filled with raised beds and heat-tolerant plants.

Amid one of the hottest summers recorded and extreme drought conditions, Wood is hand-watering his plants in the evening and using mulch to preserve cool, damp soil conditions to give his garden the best shot at survival.

Wood’s efforts mimic Leander Conservation Program Manager Bill Teeter’s message.

“We tell people conservation isn’t about sacrifice; it’s about using what you need,” he said.

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 Stillhouse 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 Aug. 30, 99.5% of Williamson County, 100% of Travis County and 100% of Hays County were in exceptional drought conditions.

Diving in deeper

Leander residents receive water from the Brushy Creek Regional Utility Authority, a partnership among Leander, Cedar Park and Round Rock that distributes water from Lake Travis.

Liberty Hill receives 25% of its water capacity from three active wells and 75% from an interlocal agreement with Leander to purchase treated water.

David Thomison, director of public works in Liberty Hill, said one well is being expanded to produce twice the amount of water and the city is looking to identify additional sites for water treatment facilities.

“One of the issues that we have moving forward is a lack of production capacity with our current wells,” he said. “But we are also looking at resolving those with several future projects.”

Teeter said Leander has remained under restrictions because its water infrastructure has not kept up with population growth; however, the BCRUA’s Deep Water Intake Phase 2 project—which will build a tunnel to extract water from the bottom of Lake Travis—aims to address that.

“We have a major project to help us get water out of Lake Travis in a better way that will make it more available even when the lake [is] lower,” Teeter said.

Current situation

Leander has been under watering restrictions since 2015, and the city expects to stay under them for the foreseeable future, Teeter said.

“The message that we’re trying to get across to people is: Don’t worry so much about having that super green lawn,” Teeter said.

This summer, Leander has been unable to meet the terms of an agreement to provide Georgetown water. Georgetown officials citied this when they enacted Stage 3 restrictions for the western part of its water service area. On Aug. 17, Leander leaders acted to allow Georgetown to receive half the amount of contracted water.

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.