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Austin’s water supply drops to a new benchmark

As of this morning, Austin’s remaining water supply had officially reached a new benchmark – i.e, below 700,000 acre-feet, as LCRA’s daily measurement came in at 698,000, while inflows remain at historic lows.  By the way, inflows over the last 5 years have been the lowest of any 5 year period in the history of the Highland Lakes, and 5 of the 10 lowest inflow years over that period have occurred within the last decade (lest anyone think that this is just a 2013 problem).  As I’ve noted before, it gets worse:  remember that, to reach the actual number for remaining water supply, we have to subtract about 37,000 acre-feet that would not be reachable or usable by our water intake, treatment and distribution system, leaving us with a “real” number of 661,000.  What does this mean?  Remember, in 2012 we used and lost to evaporation 530,000 acre-feet.  In 2011 we used and lost to evaporation 540,000 acre-feet.  And our annual inflows this year and next, unless the weather pattern changes for the better, could easily be down in the range of 100,000 to 120,000 acre-feet.  So let’s project forward a year assuming a less-than-worst-case (i.e., some, but not much, rain) continuation of the drought:  661,000 less 540,000 plus 100,000 = 221,000.  At that point, the lakes (which will by then once again go by the name “the Colorado River”) will be down to 11% full (89% empty anyone?).  Does anyone still think we need to wait another year to figure out a solution?  By that time, we’ll be the nation’s laughing stock, not the shining city on a hill that we currently assume ourselves to be.

Even if we assume a lot more rain than that scenario, such as the amount we’ve actually received over the last 12 months, we’ll still be down to about 415,000 acre-feet, or 21% full, a year from today.

While it’s true that in 1951 Lake Travis was 7 feet lower than today, today’s daily demand is HUGE compared to what it was back then.  So even if people don’t want to call today’s situation the “drought of record”, it is undeniably the “situation of record” in terms of how much time we’ve got left to decide whether we’re going to add water infrastructure, or just wait and hope and pray for rain.

The time to act came and went several years ago.  We must stop fooling ourselves that we can avoid disaster simply through more and harsher conservation efforts.  It’s time to bite the bullet and build a pipeline headed east out of Austin – either to East Texas reservoirs or to a desal plant on the coast. San Diego took the desal option by using a public/private partnership that allowed the city to avoid any upfront cost (and in the process gained a reliable new 30 year supply of water).  We could do something similar – if we’d only try.

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