Communities adrift in continuing drought

State funding, TCEQ decision may help area

Cathy and Louis Weyland live in a waterfront home Louis' father purchased near Hudson Bend Road in 1953. Louis Weyland said he remembers the drought of 1964 and the flooding that ensued. After his dock ran dry three years ago, Louis Weyland said he was forced to bring his boat aground and once again face the reality of a prolonged water shortage.

"It's very frustrating to see [the lake] down this long," he said. "My dock is sitting in grass 6 feet tall."

Louis Weyland said he worries about the value of his 2-acre property, which he said has declined by about $300,000 in the past two years.

Last month, Susan Combs, Texas comptroller of public accounts, proposed an immediate call for action to the ongoing water crisis in Central Texas.

"Texas has been prone to cycles of drought for centuries, and there is no reason to expect that basic pattern to change," she wrote in Texas Water Report: Going Deeper for the Solution, released Jan. 14. "Yet our state has changed, and its booming population and economy are creating an increasingly unquenchable demand for water."

State funded projects

On Nov. 5, Texas voters approved Proposition 6, which appropriates $2 billion as a loan from the state's rainy day fund to develop water infrastructure projects statewide. Under the program, 16 regional water boards can propose projects, with the Texas Water Development Board prioritizing projects based on population size, diversity and needs.

"Like the new approaches in Texas energy production, we need a revolution in water technology," Combs' report said. "We need a breakthrough in this field, and some of our state funding should be used for innovative technologies, which increase conservation."

Although the West Travis County Public Utility Agency, which provides water and wastewater services to customers in Lake Pointe, Bee Cave and parts of Hays County, is not slated to receive any Prop. 6 loans, the PUA board will investigate the feasibility of applying for these funds with the 2015 bond issuance, General Manager Don Rauschuber said.

Burnet County Commissioner Joe Don Dockery said entities in Precinct 4—which encompasses Spicewood—were not included in the 2012 state water plan, a requirement to receive Prop. 6 funds. Dockery said he requested the state water planning group add projects for his area to the plan.

A section of Dockery's precinct, Spicewood Beach, ran out of its water supply in 2012, and LCRA has paid to haul water to the community daily for two years, he said. In mid-April, a new $1.2 million perforated well water treatment plant is scheduled to go online to replace the former well systems and alleviate the agency's $35,000-plus monthly expense to transport water to the area, he said.

LCRA seeks new water sources

As of Feb. 5, the combined storage level of lakes Travis and Buchanan, the region's primary water supply reservoirs, was at 764,200 acre-feet, or 38 percent of capacity, LCRA spokeswoman Clara Tuma said.

LCRA has a new water reservoir in the engineering phase in Wharton County that is set to be complete in 2017 and could add as much as 90,000 acre-feet annually to the Highland Lakes supply, she said. Five wells are being drilled in Bastrop County that could produce as much as 10,000 acre-feet in drought years, she said.

Two of the wells are currently pumping, and the rest are scheduled to be working by summer, she said.

To secure new water supplies and cover its costs, LCRA could raise its rates, which may result in a monthly increase of $3 to $5 per household. The board is expected to decide by May or June, Tuma said.

Local support for emergency order

On Jan. 27, Richard A. Hyde, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality executive director, granted emergency authorization to the LCRA to deny the release of any Highland Lakes water to downstream customers, including rice farmers, if combined storage in lakes Buchanan and Travis are below 1.1 million acre-feet on March 1.

According to the order, if the current water plan continues, the drought's ongoing effect on the area's water supply would present an "imminent threat to the public health and safety."

The TCEQ will have an opportunity to approve, change, or set aside Hyde's emergency order Feb. 12.

Lakeway Mayor Dave DeOme said he supports Hyde's decision granting the emergency order.

"The drought Lakeway is facing today calls for a prudent approach to managing the drinking water of 14,000 Lakeway residents and the more than 1 million people living in the Austin metropolitan area," DeOme said.

Prior to Hyde's decision, the Lake Travis Chamber of Commerce passed a resolution requesting the TCEQ grant such an emergency drought order.

"Anytime there is potential action or policy regarding the Highland Lakes basin, the chamber would want to weigh in as it affects our local economy," Chamber President Laura Mitchell said.

The document cites the lakes' lack of recovery from the drought and the distress of area businesses as motivation for the resolution. The resolution includes LCRA's predictions that recent weather forecasts do not show signs of relief from the drought and advocates for an optimal minimum 1.4 million acre-feet cutoff for water flow to downstream farmers.

"While we feel [1.1 million acre-feet] is a compromise, it's a step in the right direction," Mitchell said. "Yes, we've been affected [by the drought], but we're a very resilient community. We always have and always will be open for business."

Lake business owners speak out

David DePrato, owner of boat repair shop Five Star Marine on Hudson Bend Road, said he has not taken a paycheck from his business in 12 months and works construction jobs to make ends meet. He also opened the 280-slip Lake Travis Marina, which offers private membership, as a way of providing ramps to allow boaters to use the lake despite the low levels, he said.

Boat rental business Just For Fun on Lake Travis has moved its docks about five times during the past three years because of descending lake levels, owner Pete Clark said.

Clark, a part owner of the Carlos'n Charlie's lake restaurant, said he was forced to close the eatery, which featured dock slips for its boating customers.

"[Closing Carlos'n Charlie's] affected me personally," Clark said. "It was sad to see it go, but we also couldn't take the risk any longer."

However, Sail & Ski Center co-owner Buzz Watkins said he has seen small improvements in business traffic during the past two years.

"We're in the third year of this drought, and the first year was the worst," he said. "But last year was better than the year before, and we're on track to do better this year."

Watkins said he also owns the marina that leases space to the Shades waterfront restaurant. The 2-year-old eatery was intended to be open year-round, but low levels on Lake Travis forced it to close part of the year, he said.

With its three LCRA-run parks, the Spicewood area relies on tourism as a significant industry, Dockery said.

"[We're] feeling the effects of the drought," Dockery said. "When park usage drops off, Opie's [Restaurant near Hwy. 71] sells less barbecue and the [nearby] Exxon station sells less gas. It's not only a drinking water issue for us, but it's a tourism issue as well."