September 10, 2013
The internet said that it might rain today. 30 percent chance, the last time I checked. And don’t get me wrong – that’s terrific. Our lawns and trees need it, and maybe it’ll cool things off a little.
But for the drought facing Central Texas? It probably wouldn’t be much more than a drop in a very hot bucket – a metal one, sitting out in the afternoon sun, that’s a little too close to empty.
Now you’re probably thinking, “Wow. You tacked some pretty grim imagery onto that cliché there, Watson. We’re used to happier talk from you on Tuesdays.”
It’s true. I’ve tried. And I’m sorry for sounding as forlorn as a Longhorn fan, especially after Baylor rolled up 70 points over the weekend. (Really, I am; I’ve taken too much football-related abuse over the years not gloat.)
But there’s no real way to be funny about what we’re facing with this drought. It’d be somewhere between short-sighted and nuts to not talk about what to do about it.
Back in January, I got a coveted “true” rating from Politifact on the assertion that 2011 was, indeed, our region’s worst drought year on record. Things haven’t gotten much better since then.
In fact, it’s gotten bad enough that people are asking important questions about how the Lower Colorado River Authority (or LCRA, the state agency charged with managing surface water in the Colorado) is doing its job.
So, some of you might be (but hopefully aren’t) thinking, if we’ve locked up the right to use that water, why shouldn’t folks be allowed to pour enough of it on their lawns to make them stop missing Seattle?
Well, the right to use water that’s there doesn’t help you if a drought or some bad decisions – or both – take that water away.
That’s the issue facing this region – and Austin specifically – right now. We’ve paid for our right to use water in the basin. That’s a big deal; among other things, it gives Austin citizens the right to hold the LCRA’s feet to the fire if it mismanages water in a way that undermines our supply (something that, you may have guessed, I believe has happened).
But no amount of notarized paper can protect people when it simply doesn’t rain. At that point, we all need to be part of the solution to this problem.
In 2011 (yeah, two years ago, during a drought), the LCRA gave downstream users enough Highland Lakes water to cover Austin’s needs for years. Partly as a result of that very, very questionable decision, Lakes Travis and Buchanan are just over 30 percent full this month.
If and when they drop below that 30 percent line, “Central Texas will officially be in the worst drought on record,” according to the Statesman.
However, if the LCRA hadn’t sent that water downstream in 2011, the Highland Lakes would be roughly half-full.
The ongoing drought has put a hot spotlight on that bad decision. As a result, the LCRA and others in the region are turning over whatever rocks they can find in an effort to extend the region’s water supplies further.
The latest sign of that can be found in an article yesterday about tentative plans (or plans for plans, or something) to periodically drop the level of Lake Austin by 3-4 feet in order to buy Austin about 9 days worth of water.
Now, this is an extraordinary time. As I wrote in a letter to the LCRA last week, I have great faith in this community to take extraordinary actions to meet this challenge.
But any actions that might be taken to address this drought will need a lot of scrutiny and input. Each will have a real cost, and Central Texans must see what the effects of those actions might be. The public also deserves a real opportunity to evaluate whether the benefits would outweigh the costs.
So far, unfortunately, too many Central Texans feel like they’ve been told that the LCRA will get back with us whenever it’s convenient, once the agency decides what it wants to do.
That kind of attitude is particularly poisonous given the likelihood that Central Texans are probably going to need to do things differently in coming years if it doesn’t start raining pretty hard around here. In extraordinary times, extraordinary – outside the ordinary – ideas deserve consideration.
But, at the same time, extraordinary measures must have demonstrated benefits, be thoughtful and be considered in an open way. Right now, people need to hear more – not less – about what the region’s facing, and what can and should be done to address that challenge.
In the meantime, we’re all going to need to get a lot smarter about how we use – and don’t use – water. We’re talking even stricter outdoor watering limits, shorter showers, and maybe even more expensive water. Here’s a helpful website showing things you can do to save water right now.
Texans also can come together to take on this issue by voting yes on Proposition 6 this November.
This is a statewide ballot measure to fund projects that will help fulfill the state’s water plan and create water supplies to support the state’s growing population. I’ll be writing a lot more about this important proposal over the next couple of months.
It’s important to remember how widespread and serious this drought is. Each of us can make a difference, and I hope you’ll grab the chance to do so.
In the meantime, I’ll never stop fighting to ensure that the region can get the water it has the right to.