Central Texans have endured one of the hottest summers recorded, blazing grass fires and extreme drought conditions this year.

Both Pflugerville and Hutto residents are facing increased water restrictions as city leaders ramp up conservation efforts to prepare for growth and hotter temperatures in the years to come.

Hutto Director of Public Works Rick Coronado said watering restrictions are new to Hutto residents, who only experienced them for the first time in 2022.

“We’ve prepared as a community to start managing water and water shortages [and] even the growth,” Coronado 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. Travis, Williamson and Hays counties have all reached 100% exceptional drought conditions.

Current situation

Pflugerville gets most of its water from the Highland Lakes through a contract with the Lower Colorado River Authority. A small portion of the city’s water—6 million gallons per day—comes from well water sourced from the Edwards Aquifer.

Hutto receives most of its water through wells that draw from the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer about 50 miles east of Austin.

Both cities are looking to build new water infrastructure that will increase capacity for their growing populations.

Hutto’s fiscal year 2023-24 budget includes over $200 million for a new water storage tank, a well water-pumping site and wastewater infrastructure improvements to bolster the city’s water capacity.

Pflugerville and some Williamson County entities are in the early stages of the Williamson County Return Flows project, which includes building a new pipe and reservoir that will help ensure consistent access and affordable water for residents.

The project will allow the Brazos River Basin, which purchases water from the LCRA at a surcharge, to receive water without the additional fee so long as the potable water used is returned back to the LCRA.

Pflugerville Public Utilities Director Brandon Pritchett said the project is in the preliminary stages and could cost up to $500 million.

“Water and wastewater is a long game,” Pritchett said. “We work in geologic time, not in standard time. So we have to plan out for 30, 40, 50 years because water supply and water infrastructure projects don’t happen overnight.”

City water use changes

In Pflugerville, from July 2022 to July 2023, the average daily water use fell from 13.85 million gallons per day to 10.57 million gallons per day, dropping by 23.66%.

In Hutto, the city’s average water use between 2019-21 increased from 1.58 million gallons per day to 1.69 million gallons per day, or by 6%.

Diving in deeper

Both Pflugerville and Hutto are looking to invest in purple pipe water—treated wastewater that isn’t clean enough to drink but can be used for irrigation and cooling systems.

“The last thing you need to do is to use precious drinking water for nonpotable water sources or needs,” Coronado said.

Pflugerville has used purple pipe water for over a decade, but city leaders are ramping up those efforts and encouraging industrial customers to also use it.

Pflugerville even offers rebates to encourage conservation, including for rainwater-harvesting systems, high-efficiency clothes washers and landscapes that don’t require irrigation.

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,” Thane said.

Individual solutions

Lawn care services company Emerald Lawns Marketing Director Kristen Parkhurst offered several 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.