AUSTIN (KXAN) — The current drought in Central Texas is the second worst in history. Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan are nearing their lowest all time levels, currently at 38 percent capacity while most Central Texans are under tight water restrictions and have to pay for every drop of water they use. In many cases people who use more water have to pay more for it. So, how can thousands of people draw water from lakes with their own pipes, for private use? And is it legal?
A KXAN investigation finds the Lower Colorado River Authority estimates approximately 6,000 homeowners and businesses are drawing water from the six Highland Lakes at an estimated rate of 1.6 billion gallons a year and in more than half of those cases, it is actually legal. Those who have a contract agreement with LCRA are charged a flat fee starting at $113 a year.
Of the 3,606 current contracts for straws, 2,202 of them are on Lake LBJ, 478 on Lake Travis, 432 contracts on Lake Austin, 191 on Lake Buchanan, 177 on Inks Lake, and 118 on Lake Marble Falls.
The LCRA sends an inspector out on the lakes to try to catch people pulling water without paying for it. But LCRA has had only one inspector, a water use representative who admits they are difficult to find.
“There definitely are a lot of pumps out there where people are diverting and are drawing water from the lakes that don’t have a permit so, we are definitely out trying to find them,” said Arthur Sayre.
Because of our investigation, LCRA announced Monday it would be stepping-up enforcement and adding more inspectors starting Aug. 1. But LCRA admits whether straw users are permitted or not, their water usage is not measured, even during this drought.
“I’m very irritated by this,” said Lakeway resident, Dean Wilcox. Wilcox says he pays about $150 a month for water. But unlike some of his neighbors he doesn’t live close enough to Lake Travis to run a pipe from the lake to his house for watering his lawn and garden.
“If I am using a lot of water I have to pay for a lot of water,” says Wilcox. “If I don’t use as much water then I don’t have to pay for it,” he continued. “I don’t get a flat rate or an option. I have to pay for what I use.”
LCRA says it currently has no way of monitoring the usage of those with domestic use contracts. Most people getting their water from a public utility have water meters at their homes keeping track of what they use and get billed monthly. And with some utilities, the more you use, the more you pay per gallon, which encourages conservation.
“I would encourage LCRA to consider at least metering these people,” says Wilcox. “If everybody else is paying the price for this I don’t see why a few people are getting exceptions to keep drawing water, unmetered out of the lake.”
“Do you believe the straws should be banned?” KXAN Investigator Brian Collister asked LCRA General Manager, Phil Wilson. “No,” Wilson replied.
We wanted LCRA to respond to complaints from Central Texans who believe these “straws,” owned by a paying customer or not, should not be allowed.
With such a severe drought why allow people to draw from the lake to essentially just water their lawns?
“Because they have the same right to that water under a sale as anybody else would,” Wilson responded. “So if they’re willing to sign a contract, we will sell them that water because they have a right to use that water as they see fit.”
LCRA claims the water drawn by straw users, legal or not, is just a drop in the bucket compared to all of the water drawn by all entities contracting with LCRA, mostly public utility companies.
We did some math and found – if all of the Highland Lakes were at full capacity, the estimated 1.6 gallons drawn annually by straw users is less than 1% of all of the lakes’ full capacity. But that amount is enough to drain Lake Marble Falls, the smallest of the Highland Lakes, in two years.
Conservationists like Jo Karr Tedder with the Central Texas Water Coalition say LCRA should be the first to know that every drop counts, especially during this drought.
“Until you meter everyone using water it makes it difficult to determine just how much water you still have,” Karr Tedder claims.
Karr Tedder suggests those unpermitted straw users might be more willing to come forward and be monitored if they had an incentive, such as a sharing the cost of installing a meter with LCRA.
“I think many people would be surprised to see just how much they are using,” she says. “This is something that will have to be addressed and the LCRA should do it sooner than later.
Limiting straws during droughts
Dean Wilcox wholeheartedly agrees that LCRA needs to take action fast.
“It’s affecting our way of life out here, because we can’t enjoy the lake because they (LCRA) keep draining the lake. So, please stop,” said Wilcox.
KXAN spoke to others who say LCRA should at least set a lower lake level threshold where the use of straws is not allowed.
“There should definitely be a threshold,” said Austin resident Dave Wiegand, who has been boating on Lake Travis for more than 25 years.
Wiegand thinks it’s time for the LCRA to turn off the tap on those using straws, especially as the lakes are nearing all-time lows.
“Being able to cut those pipes off from sucking water out of the lake at a certain level makes sense for everyone,” said Wiegand.
But does it make sense to LCRA?
“Why not create a threshold where you cut off the users of these straws when the lake gets to a level it is now?” Brian Collister asked LCRA General Manager, Phil Wilson.
“I think that is a conversation that can be had,” he replied. “I think it’s something the board can look at, at LCRA.”
While the board might look at the issue, Wilson says the approximately $700,000 a year brought in by straw user contracts is money LCRA needs to manage its system, which has an annual operating budget of $1.1Billion, inlcuding Wilson’s $425,000 a year salary.
“If someone contracts for water and utilizing that water for whatever they see best, for beneficial use…watering their yard is one of those things, running your business, using that water at a fabrication facility is a beneficial use. We’ve determined that’s a fair use of that product as long as they’re willing to pay the price for that product,” said Wilson.
People like Wiegand don’t agree.
“I don’t think that’s quite right,” said Wiegand. “The rest of us are paying metered usage at our homes and if you’re sucking water out of the lake I think there needs to be some sort of measure or cutoff point.”
The LCRA says it has plans for a pilot program to monitor straw users’ usage. But right now its main focus is catching those stealing water without contracts making them pay for it. LCRA also says it wants to find a way to meter water drawn by the straws, but has no specific plans right now.
If someone is caught taking water from the lakes without a contract with LCRA, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality can issue citations and levy fines. But LCRA confirms it has not reported anyone to TCEQ because ever straw user it has found responded by signing a contract to pay. Now, LCRA says it will report all unpermitted straw users to TCEQ. TCEQ tells KXAN fines of up to $5,000 per day can be levied against violators.
If you see someone you suspect of drawing water illegally from the lakes you can contact LCRA’s Domestic Use Contract Hotline at 1-800-776-5272, ext. 1535, by by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, or online atwww.lcra.org/domesticuse
TCEQ also has the authority to curtail LCRA’s water distribution during emergency drought situations.
Earlier this month Gov. Rick Perry announced a continued statewide drought emergency, urging conservation. And just a few days ago, the TCEQ issued an emergency authorization for the Lower Colorado River Authority to limit its agricultural customers.
But TCEQ spokesperson Andrea Morrow wrote in an email to KXAN “because ‘straw users’ are not water-right holders and a senior call has not been made, TCEQ’s authority to curtail water rights under Texas Water Code Section 11.053 does not directly apply to ‘straw users’ because they are not water-right holders. However, if a senior water-right holder makes a senior call during a drought or other emergency shortage of water, TCEQ may issue an emergency order curtailing junior water rights in the basin by suspending or adjusting a junior water-right holder’s right to divert state water. There is no curtailment required at this time because there is no emergency condition that warrants such an action. The LCRA is the water-right holder and is responsible for making sure that any water diverted is within the limits of their water right.”
KXAN will keep following this story and let you know how many unpermitted straw users are reported to TCEQ, if they are fined, and if TCEQ imposes further restrictions on LCRA.