Texas-Size Drought Dries Up Lake Travis

People in Texas are suffering through a major drought that's putting pressure on cities, farmers, ranchers and businesses. It's also impacting Lake Travis, which is near the capital Austin. The drought problem is complicated by water management rules.

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As other news organizations cut back, NPR continues covering news stories across this country, whether it's a mine disaster in West Virginia, or the drought that's affecting Texas. The word drought doesn't really capture what's happening in Texas. The last nine months have been the driest in state history. Instead of rain, spring brought nearly half a million acres of wildfires. And in central Texas, around Austin one of the area's largest lakes is drying up. NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports.

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WADE GOODWYN: Drive out from Austin to Lake Travis and the water basin in front of Mansfield Dam looks like a gerrymandered Texas congressional district, with the water snaking in and out of dry land in a way God never intended. It's only June, with the dog days before us, but the lake is down 25�feet from normal, and dropping a foot a week.

Mr. LOUIS VALDEZ (Park ranger, Lower Colorado River Authority): Boats run aground. You can definitely get hurt, you know, you can hurt yourself. If you're going fast enough and you hit ground and, you know, you're not buckled into these boats, so you can definitely fly out and hurt yourself.

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GOODWYN: Louis Valdez is a park ranger for the Lower Colorado River Authority. Valdez should be able to scoot right across this basin, from one side to the other. But the only way he'd do that now was if he was at the helm of a duck boat, because large islands rise out of the middle of the lake. Valdez pulls up next to one and stops.

Mr. VALDEZ: What you're looking at here, is what we call Sometimes Island, meaning that sometimes they're there, sometimes they're not.

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GOODWYN: The lake is ringed with bars and restaurants, water parks and marinas; it's an environmental jewel and an economic engine. But it's sad to look at, well down the road to pitiful.

Mr. JOHNNY MCENTEE (General manager, Shades Cafe): It also makes the lake look like it's got a ring around it, a big ugly ring and it, you know, people just don't like it.

GOODWYN: Johnny McEntee is the general manager of Shades Cafe, which is usually on the water. McEntee blames Mother Nature and the LCRA, the Lower Colorado River Authority. That's who controls the water levels on the seven lakes that make up the Highland Lake chain.

Mr. MCENTEE: And they really don't care. All they want to do is make their electricity and sell their water, and then we're secondary. And they've always said that. It even says it on their website.

GOODWYN: At the next table over are Vince and Gail Cali, who retired to Lake Travis from Dallas 15 years ago. But there's no water, you could maybe jump a motorcycle onto their boat dock if you were Evel Knievel.

Mr. VINCE CALI: And we chose Austin because it's so beautiful down here. No one told us that this lake can get really low. Now we know. Now we know that we can't rely on the lake for any sort of gratification.

Ms. GAIL CALI: The LCRA, as far as I'm concerned, has let us down.

GOODWYN: In the LCRA water hierarchy, first comes a million Austin area residents, then industrial users and beautiful but thirsty golf courses.

Suzanne Zarling is the executive manager of water services for the LCRA.

Ms. SUZANNE ZARLING (Executive manager, Water Services, Lower Colorado River Authority): And so all of those needs occasionally compete. And almost at any given time, there is one or another group who is dissatisfied with the circumstance around the Highland Lakes.

GOODWYN: Texas farmers and ranchers are really starting to suffer. Loses are at a billion and a half dollars and climbing like the national debt. But, not for the rice farmers downstream of Lake Travis. Long before the creation of the LCRA in 1934, Texas rice farmers used the Colorado River for irrigation, and this historical precedence gives them rights to millions of gallons each year.

Haskell Simon has been farming rice in Matagorda county near the Gulf of Mexico since the 1940's. He says that over the last 15 years the rice planting season has been getting earlier and earlier, because the South Texas climate is getting hotter and hotter.

Mr. HASKELL SIMON (Farmer): Typically LCRA would turn on the irrigation water pumps by April 15th. And now the pumps can be started as early as March the 1st. So something is happening, obviously, there.

GOODWYN: In Austin, they're praying for a hurricane, a nice slow moving category one or two, or a tropical storm, that makes its way up to Austin and then stalls out over the Texas hill country.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News.

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