Rising Lake Buchanan brings new concerns for residents

Lake Buchanan (KXAN Photo/David Barer)
Lake Buchanan (KXAN Photo/David Barer)

BURNET COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) – It has been years since Paula Haynes could hear the lapping waves of Lake Buchanan from her back porch.

The deep-blue Central Texas reservoir is back and almost brimming for the first time since 2008. Haynes said she’s finally enjoying the scene that lured her to the area: warm wind whipping over the clear water, swooping pelicans, chirping songbirds, boaters striping white wakes in the distance.

But Haynes, and others, fear the recent return of those simple pleasures could be short-lived. The Lower Colorado River Authority decided in early March it would resume releasing water for coastal agriculture for the first time in four years.

“Ever since 2012 … all our neighbors have been praying for rain,” Haynes said. “It finally comes, and then to our surprise the LCRA is going to turn around and give it to the rice farmers again.”

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A lawn ornament twirls in the wind beside a nearly full Lake Buchanan on March 14, 2016, in Burnet County.

Gauging the lake levels, weather and other factors, LCRA leaders have agreed to release up to 202,000 acre-feet of water from lakes Travis and Buchanan through mid-summer. That’s enough to fill Lake Austin nine times over (an acre-foot of water is about 325,000 gallons). The river authority could decide to release a second 76,500 acre-foot batch later in the year, depending on conditions. The water releases could be smaller than those maximum amounts, according to the LCRA.

Many Central Texans have blamed the LCRA’s 2011 water release for downstream farmers, coupled with epic drought, as major contributors to the low lake levels that slammed businesses and tourism in recent years. In 2011, LCRA sent more than 433,000 acre-feet to agriculture users below Austin, according to LCRA data. Only in the past year have lake levels recovered significantly.

In response to the possibility of prolonged drought and a steadily ballooning Central Texas population, last year LCRA rejiggered its water management plan. The plan’s latest iteration is more conservative in the amount of water that can be released, said John Hofmann, LCRA executive vice president for water.

Under the new water management plan, LCRA now weighs the amount of water in the lakes, along with the potential impact of future weather and historic weather patterns, including 2011, which was the driest single year in recorded Texas history, Hofmann said.

“We have the awesome responsibility of trying to manage a shared resource that people up and down this river depend on for their livelihood,” Hofmann said. “Those reservoirs were built to tame the Colorado River, to manage floods, to make water supplies available for the heart of the state of Texas and for providing hydroelectric generation.”

Myron Hess, with the National Wildlife Federation, said his organization focuses primarily on environmental issues, but it also recognizes the value the rice farms provide, for instance, to migratory waterfowl. Beyond agriculture, he said a healthy flowing river helps Matagorda Bay’s freshwater needs and fish species in the Colorado River, he added.

“One of my big concerns is that over time in Austin, as demands continue to grow, there is going to be less and less water available for the environment,” Hess said. “The issue of water management is a contentious one. It is always scary to see lake levels drop, but that is the way the system was created.”

2011: The driest year

The new plan is more conservative, according to LCRA documents. Nevertheless, Lake Buchanan residents still fret about the return of drought and a shrunken, nearly inaccessible waterfront.

Following 2011, Highland Lake tourism was hit hard by the ever-shrinking lake, particularly in Tow, a town at the northern end of Lake Buchanan. In optimal conditions, the brimming lake fills sloughs along Tow’s edge. Boaters can dock in their backyards. At its worst, Tow residents have lost sight of the lake’s edge.

Those low lake levels exacerbated the relationship between Lake Buchanan residents and rice farmers to the south.

Haynes, and others, said they felt the downstream rice farmers have held outsized influence, and received bargain prices on water, compared to Central Texans.

But those farmers have suffered, too, since receiving the last shipment of water in 2011. The LCRA held back on releasing water for four years.

From Bastrop to La Grange and down to El Campo and Matagorda, businesses along the lower stretch of the Colorado have been hard hit, said Kirby Brown, a board member of Lower Colorado River Basin Coalition, which advocates for stakeholders south of Austin that use Highland Lake water.

“It’s tough. People are laid off. People didn’t go to work; fields were fallow for four years. A lot of those guys lost their businesses, the rice businesses, their farms,” Brown said. “We had a lot of implement dealers, local banks in those small communities closed…it was just a lot of different folks that were affected: the guys at the gas station, guys who fly the planes to put fertilizer out.”

Brown said a new reservoir being constructed in Wharton County should help. LCRA expects to complete the Lane City Reservoir in 2018. It will hold about 90,000 acre-feet of water.

Just as the residents of Lake Buchanan worry about the release of water and a depleted lake, so do Brown and downstream farmers worry about being cutoff.

“All of these things are all part of the whole that we have to look at and talk about and consider the impacts to everyone,” Brown said.

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