Texas’ Ongoing Drought Keeping Lake Levels Down

By BETSY BLANEY | July 26, 2013

When A.O. Smith bought the lone marina on White River Lake in 2000, the water level was already low.

Since then there have been some wet years and some really dry ones, and the lake is now so low that the 68-year-old wonders how much longer he can keep his doors open.

“Business is down and it’s all connected to water,” said Smith, who’s surviving on revenue from the marina’s restaurant and his savings. “I’ve never seen the lake this bad.”

The 10,000 people who rely on water from the White River Lake, 70 miles southeast of Lubbock, also wonder if their faucets will run dry.

They’re not alone.

Twelve other Texas water districts have reported they could be 45 days away from running out of water and 12 more are down to a 90-day supply. The 109 lakes that provide water to Texans are at their lowest combined level for this time of year and – unless there is significant rain by fall – the outlook is dire.

Ground was left parched by the 2011 drought and that means no runoff into rivers and lakes, which are at the lowest level since 1990 for this time of year. About 71 percent of the state is in severe to exceptional drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Widespread rains across the state last week will help in the short term, but more is needed.

“I don’t think they’re going to go away unless we get the reservoirs back up,” Ruben Solis, director of surface water resources for the Texas Water Development Board, said about mandatory and voluntary restrictions. “2011 was an eye-opener.”

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality works closely with water suppliers to identify alternative sources. Restrictions including limiting and prohibiting outdoor water use are set locally according to drought contingency plans.

About 22 percent of the state’s 4,660 public water suppliers are under voluntary or mandatory restrictions. Ongoing dry conditions prompted Gov. Rick Perry earlier this month to renew a 2011 drought disaster declaration for 222 of 254 counties. The declaration allows affected counties to receive private and public assistance.

Planning for future water needs has become a priority for lawmakers who this year agreed to establish a $2 billion water fund that needs voter approval in November.

Some areas are faring better than others, Solis said. North Central Texas and East Texas have gotten more rain and therefore lakes there have benefited; the western half of the state and South Texas are “not good at all,” he said.

And the next month doesn’t bode well for an area west of a line from Wichita Falls to Del Rio, where there’s an increased chance of below normal rainfall, while the rest of the state has equal chances for above, normal or below normal precipitation.

Ironically, Texas lakes were 68 percent full in July 2011 thanks to heavy rainfall the previous year. In July 2010 the lakes were 83 percent full. But by November 2011 they were only 58 percent full – the worst levels for Texas lakes at any time of year going back to 1990, Solis said.

A lack of substantial rain isn’t the only problem. Evaporation from wind and hot temperatures can rob the lakes of as much as 7 million acre-feet, or about 2.3 trillion gallons, a year, according to long-term averages produced by the Texas Water Development Board.

State climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said evaporation could cause the largest volume gap ever between the amount of water actually in Texas lakes and their total storage capacity.

At White River Lake, permanent pumps for the $25 million water treatment plant along the shore are unusable because the lake is too low. Two temporary floating pumps are set nearby to carry water to the plant.

Only one boat ramp remains open, and Smith’s marina docks are yards from the waterline. Few motorboats use the lake, which supplies water to Ralls, Post, Crosbyton and Spur.

Last summer the towns received $2.1 million in Texas Department of Agriculture grants to rehabilitate groundwater wells and dig a new one. Water use has dropped 40 percent since August, and in May the district’s most strident restrictions were implemented _ no outside watering for any purpose, district general manager Tom Fulton said.

The district will probably “squeak by (by) the skin of our teeth,” Fulton said. Recent rains helped raise the level of White River Lake by three-quarters of a foot, but did not resolve the problem.

“We are going through a disaster, we really are,” Fulton said. “We’re on unchartered ground.”

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