Volente fights toils of drought

The village of Volente depends on Lake Travis for water and the tourism it brings to local restaurants and marinas. Although low lake levels persist, some business owners say they are adapting to lower profits and staying hopeful for the future.

"The people that are in this for the long haul are making adjustments and making it work," Riviera Marina owner Steve Allen said.

2014 is the seventh year of the Central Texas drought. Lake Travis water levels are now about 44 feet below average, according to the Lower Colorado River Authority. The LCRA is concerned Lake Travis water levels could decrease to 618 feet by Oct. 1—close to the lake's record low of 614 feet during the historic drought of 1947–57.

Tourism in Volente has not dried up, but many potential boaters avoid the lake because of negative perceptions, Allen said.

"I'm frustrated with the doom and gloom," he said. "It is affecting the businesses around the lake, the restaurants. And it's affecting our [boat] occupancy because people are timid to go on the lake."

Business changes

Some marina owners said they have adjusted their business models in response to the drought conditions. Instead of cutting back on overhead and payroll, VIP Marina owner Austin Cameron said he bought more boats and maintained his staffing levels. He believes cutting costs would have a negative effect on customers' experience and drive away even more business.

Allen said Riviera has found alternative profits from people selling their boats or putting them in dry storage at the marina, though fewer customers go boating.

Fewer people on Lake Travis has lead to strains on Volente's restaurants. Cafe Bleu on Lime Creek Road did not reopen after closing for the season in September 2013, co-owner Jason Landtroop said. Rick Redmond, owner of Shore Club Volente Beach and Volente Beach Waterpark, said his businesses see fewer customers from the lake, so he has added events in an attempt to lure new visitors.

McNeill Marine owner Bryan McNeill said the ailing national economy and dwindling lake water have cut his business revenue by half since 2008.

"I just personally financed myself and went into debt and fought," McNeill said. "I fear for this lake, if we don't get any rain this year, what it's going to do. The recreation is a small factor when you consider how many people draw off this water to live."

Resident concerns

Carol Schlenk has lived in Volente since 1972 and can recall the lake's better days.

"On Sunday afternoons you'd see sailboat regattas," she said. "They were so beautiful."

Schlenk said losing the lake's aesthetic beauty is only one concern residents share. Regional growth brings increased demand for drinking water from the lake. Values have dropped for some houses once advertised as lakefront properties, Schlenk said.

"[Before the drought] everyone's well had enough water in it," she said. "Nowadays people are so worried about their wells going dry or going lower."

Resident Larry Sanders said his floating dock hit ground when the lake level fell. The pump that supplies water to his house is no longer submerged, though he continues to pay LCRA for lake access, he said. He and his wife, Niki, did not want to wait for rain, so in 2009 they dug a well, Sanders said.

"We're going to have to have some kind of underground water to help us," he said.

Hopes for rain

Lower water levels reveal rough rock slopes on the shore and leave islands bare in the lake's center. Yet marina owners said the lake retains coves deep enough for boat access. Allen said boaters could once travel 65 miles on the lake, however, in the current drought conditions boat travel has been reduced to approximately 35 miles.

Even if the lake recovers, the drought has taken an emotional toll on residents, Schlenk said.

"You wonder how long the drought will last," she said. "Who knows whether the weather patterns will hold, and who knows whether the lake will ever fill up again?"
By Stephen Burnett
Stephen Burnett has been a community journalist since 2005. He joined Community Impact Newspaper as a reporter in November 2013. For the cities of Cedar Park, Leander and northwest Austin, he covers city and county government, business, development, events, transportation, utilities and more.


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