Cedar Park, Leander collaborate on water project

The "what if" factor in 2005 was enough for Cedar Park and Leander to begin proactively preparing for the worst-case scenario during a drought. Eight years later and with Lake Travis nearing record-low water levels, "what if" is no longer hypothetical.

The cities have worked together to build an $11.1 million temporary underwater pipeline and raw water pump that ensures Cedar Park and Leander residents continue receiving reliable, uninterrupted water despite record-low water levels in Lake Travis, the region's primary water supply.

The new pump could be activated as early as late September to early October when, according to projections from the Lower Colorado River Authority, lake levels would drop too low for either city to continue using its own pumps.

The drought contingency project comes online the same time the Brushy Creek Regional Utility Authority—which in addition to Round Rock, provides water to all three cities—water pump is being dismantled because of low lake levels. The BCRUA water pump will remain offline until lake levels increase.

Round Rock agreed Aug. 8 to provide Cedar Park up to 2.8 million gallons per day to provide yet another alternative water source.

The new water pump is designed to pump at least 36 million gallons per day, the same combined capacity as the existing pumps both cities operate, said Sam Roberts, Cedar Park assistant city manager.

"Contingency plans for utilities is a cost of doing business," he said.

Drought contingency

Construction began last summer on a pipeline 4,000 feet long and 42 inches in diameter along the bottom of Lake Travis. The new infrastructure attaches to each city's water treatment plant, allowing for seamless service for area water customers.

"Putting Phase A in last summer really put us in a good position to finish the project this summer," Roberts said.

Efforts are still underway to complete the temporary pump station, an 80-foot-long by 60-foot-wide floating barge that connects to the new pipeline. The floating barge will be located in a deeper part of Lake Travis, enabling the structure to operate even when lake levels drop

25 acre-feet below the worst drought on record—the point at which Cedar Park and Leander can no longer operate their permanent pumps. The pump station should be completed in time for its first testing on or around Aug. 19, Roberts said.

The temporary deep-water intake pump will come in handy during the next decade should drought conditions persist or return. Such a backup plan is helpful, Roberts said, because it could be up to a decade until a more permanent deep-water intake pump is constructed by BCRUA.

"We'll be able to use this going into the future," he said.

Water restrictions

The transition to the temporary pump will coincide with a mandatory 20 percent reduction in all water use among Lower Colorado River Authority customers. Cedar Park proactively enacted Stage 3 drought restrictions—one day per week watering—on Aug. 1, while Leander is expected to begin enforcing similar restrictions in early September when Lake Travis water levels are expected to drop below 615 acre-feet, breaking the lowest lake levels on record.

Cedar Park has increased its water rates 9 percent as long as Stage 3 restrictions are in place to help overcome the loss of water revenue. During the July 11 City Council meeting, Cedar Park Mayor Matt Powell asked whether LCRA should share in some of the financial pain during the drought.

"As long as we're going to ask our residents to pay more, we're paying for a reservation [of water] that we not only really can't access but are being told not to access," Powell said. "I feel less good about paying that reservation when I can't use it."

Katherine Woerner, director of community affairs, told the council that LCRA firmwater customers—mostly cities such as Cedar Park and Leander—plans to ask the utility provider to consider reviewing the cost of reserving water during such drought-depleted times. A letter asking LCRA to temporarily reconsider its firmwater water reservation rate—$75.50 per acre-foot per year—has been sent to the water utility agency, Cedar Park spokeswoman Jennie Huerta said.

Updated 8/20/13 1:06 p.m.