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Austin Water addresses effect of drought on agriculture

By Veronica Apodaca

Texas’ current drought is affecting both Austin residents as well as the crops grown outside of the city. At Wednesday’s Water and Wastewater Commission meeting, representatives from Austin Water explained the far-reaching effects of the drought and efforts made to address it.

“While hot and dry is not uncommon for this part of the world, we find ourselves unusually hot and dry even for Texas, and even for the summer,” Austin Water Assistant Director Kevin Crittendon said.

These unusual conditions have led to a change in the agricultural operations that rely on water from the Highland Lakes. Ordinarily, the growers will harvest a second crop after their first harvest. However, attempts to conserve water during the drought have led to the second crop being curtailed.

Teresa Lutes, managing engineer of Austin Water’s system planning division, told the commission that the rice operations in Matagorda, Colorado and Fayette counties are the crops most affected.

“Because of the dry conditions and the improved water management plan that (the Lower Colorado River Authority) operates, there are going to be less releases for downstream agricultural needs,” Lutes said.

LCRA tracks the combined water storage of Lake Buchanan and Lake Travis, two of the Highland Lakes, in order to make decisions regarding the use of the water. Currently, the lakes hold 1.2 million acre-feet of water. Stage one drought restrictions went into effect June 6, when water levels reached 1.4 million acre-feet. This resulted in LCRA’s decision to redirect water toward cities, businesses and industries in accordance with its water management plan.

“It’s a new plan, and it seems to be working well, because under these very dry conditions, these curtailments are kicking in as part of the plan, so everybody knows that’s coming,” Lutes said.

As LCRA continues to monitor the lakes’ water storage on a monthly basis, the level of water will determine how the water will be used. Stage two drought restrictions will be put in place if the water levels continue to decrease and reach 900,000 acre-feet, although Lutes said that LCRA has projected the lakes will remain above this level for the remainder of the year.

This will also determine whether agricultural operations will receive water from the lakes for next year’s crop. The lakes’ water storage must reach 1.3 million acre-feet by March 1 in order for LCRA to allow the water to be used for agriculture again. Until then, Lutes said, farmers have the option to use groundwater rather than lake water for their crops.

Lutes concluded by sharing the three-month outlook for seasonal temperatures and precipitation from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and what it might mean for Texas. The outlook shows a 50 percent chance of normal precipitation levels, which may help to raise the lakes’ water levels and allow agricultural operations to have access to lake water again.

“In the coming months … we’re going to work to continue (to ensure) that water conservation remains on top of everyone’s mind,” Crittendon said.


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