AUSTIN (KXAN) — Karen Bruett has called Lake Travis home since 1999.
“This lake is more than a play thing,” Bruett said, of the body of water just northwest of Austin. “This lake is actually our drinking water. We have that visceral experience of turning on our tap and knowing that this is what’s supplying it.”
In that time, she has seen the population of the city downriver double.
“The development is going to crush our water supply,” Bruett said.
While she fears her water will be shut off someday, 110 miles farther downriver, that is today’s reality for third-generation rice farmer Tim Gertson.
His family operation is dried up this year after the Lower Colorado River Authority, based in Central Texas, cut off the water supply.
“There’s a lot of jobs that depend on that water that comes down the Colorado River,” Gertson said.
While Gertson is still able to grow one-quarter of his crop using groundwater from the Gulf Coast Aquifer, the majority of his 1,600 acres near Eagle Lake lay fallow. And while federally-backed crop insurance will help Gertson recover some of this year’s losses, “these support industries that we depend heavily on, they don’t have any of that,” Gertson said. “They’re just going to take the hit.”
Gertson’s large farming operation has an airplane hangar and landing strip on-site with two crop dusting aircraft sitting unused.
“If that pilot’s not flying that airplane, he ain’t making no money,” said Victor Espinosa, Manager and Mechanic at the Gertson’s crop dusting service.
“We’ve got one pilot, he’s actually going to go work in Illinois this year just to offset the loss of income that he’ll be missing,” Espinosa said.
How bad is our current four-year drought?
In 2022, a record-low amount of water flowed into the Highland Lakes. And data through May 9 of this year shows we are on track to beat that record.
Jordan Furnans is a hydrologist and Vice President of Texas Operations at LRE Water — a firm dedicated to developing water resource strategies throughout the western United States. Furnans said the total amount of water that has flowed into the Highland Lakes between the start of the current drought in 2019 and May 9 of this year is 786,008 acre-feet lower than water inflows during the worst drought we have ever seen. Water managers refer to that drought as our “drought of record,” from 2008-2015.
In other words, the amount of water flowing into the Highland Lakes during the drought of record was 388,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools greater than the amount of water that has flowed in during the current drought.
So what happens if there isn’t enough water to go around? That’s where LCRA’s Water Management Plan comes into play, determining whose water gets shut off and when. The latest version of the plan is designed to guide the water supply through a repeat of the drought of record.
LCRA officials are taking a closer look at the plan since we started investigating.
“We have a lot of different stakeholders with a lot of competing interests that we have to balance,” said John Hofmann, Executive Vice President of Water with the LCRA.
Decisions to shut off the flow to downstream agriculture like Gertson’s farm are governed by the LCRA’s 2020 Water Management Plan. The plan dictates that if combined water storage levels in lakes Travis and Buchanan are less than 1.3 million acre-feet on March 1 (levels this year were 1.037 million acre-feet), the drought has lasted at least 18 months (the current drought has lasted four years), and water inflows into the lakes since the start of the drought are lower than during the drought of record (they are), we enter “Extraordinary Drought” conditions and interruptible water to downstream agriculture is shut off.
The plan also states if downstream agricultural interests do not receive water for the first growing season, they will not be considered for a second release July 1.
Climate change expected to lead to more severe droughts in the future
Texas State Climatologist Dr. John Nielson-Gammon predicts droughts will soon be worse than the drought of record. His research finds more severe future droughts will mean less available water in the Highland Lakes, the drinking water supply for more than one million Central Texans.
Nielsen-Gammon said Texas’ temperatures have already warmed 2°F higher than the 20th century average, and that as the climate warms further, Central Texas will experience more evaporation from the lakes and soil, along with less dependable rainfall. This is expected to lead to a net decrease in the amount of available water in the Highland Lakes.
“What used to be high temperatures in the upper 90s become high temperatures in the low 100s,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “It means water evaporates from reservoirs more rapidly.”
City of Austin is planning for climate change
The City of Austin is the biggest purchaser of water from the lakes, which the LCRA manages. This is the water that residents use to drink, shower, do the dishes and water the lawn.
“Austin Water as a water and wastewater utility knows that utilities face many different impacts from climate change,” said Marisa Flores Gonzalez, water resources team supervisor at Austin Water. “We know that the future is going to be more uncertain. We know that the future is going to be different than the past.”
“Water Forward” is Austin Water’s 100-year water resource plan that accounts for future impacts of climate change and population growth. The City of Austin said it is working with University of Texas climate scientists to secure a sustainable water future for residents.
“We know that increased temperatures will lead to increased evaporation on those surface water supplies,” Flores Gonzalez said. “And we know that changes in the distribution of rainfall will lead to periods of drought that could be longer or more severe or come on more rapidly.”
LCRA not planning for climate change… yet
KXAN searched through the LCRA’s current 67-page Water Management Plan, and the phrase “climate change” does not show up in the document at all.
Through an open records request, KXAN asked for any internal communication over roughly the past year between LCRA executives and its Board mentioning the plan and the words “climate change.” There were none.
“How often are you discussing climate change internally amongst the decision-makers at LCRA?” KXAN Chief Meteorologist David Yeomans asked LCRA’s Vice President of Water, John Hofmann, during a recent interview.
“Well, within the context of the Water Management Plan, it’s a short-term operational plan, so the climate change subject is not as much of a driver,” Hofmann said.
In recent history, LCRA’s Water Management Plan has been updated every five years — in 2010, 2015 and 2020.
During our interview with the LCRA, Hofmann committed to opening public comment in 2025 for the plan’s next update. This was the first public commitment to a timeline for part of the Water Management Plan’s next update process.
“So how do you weigh the State Climatologist’s findings that climate change in the future will change the amount of available water in the Highland Lakes that you manage?” Yeomans asked.
“I don’t know how to do that just yet,” Hofmann replied. “I mean, I think that’s one of the discussions you’ll have as part of that next update process of the water supply resources report, is to what extent that factors in to managing water going into the future.”
“So climate change will be a part of those discussions?” Yeomans asked.
If and when the Water Management Plan is updated, it must first receive approval from the LCRA Board, then final approval from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
The LCRA Board is made up of 15 members, all appointed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott to six-year terms.
We reached out to every member — including two new appointees awaiting Senate confirmation — for comment, but received no response.
The water users we spoke with worry 2025 isn’t soon enough.
“There’s definitely a threat to the industry,” Gertson said. “Farming, and especially rice farming in this region, has kind of been the backbone of the community for a century.”
While Central Texas residents are encouraged by water utilities to conserve water during drought, Gertson and his family are doing their part to conserve as well. They have won multiple conservation awards by employing expensive techniques like precision-leveling their fields, which ensures they will not use more water than necessary to water the crop.
“We’re extremely appreciative of anything that’s helping to keep water in the lakes. And what we would want people to understand is that we are working the same down here to do the same things,” Gertson said.
As for the long-term viability of a water-intensive crop like rice in Texas? Gertson says the soil in southeast Texas will not support much else.
“We’ve tried to grow row crops, we’ve tried to grow corn, we’ve tried to grow beans, we’ve tried to grow some more out-of-the-box crops like sesame,” Gertson said. “We have never been successful.”
“It’s tough, because from our perspective, we’re fighting the development and stuff up there that’s happening way after the fact of an industry that’s been down here for 120 years,” Gertson said. “And it’s really hard to swallow that pill sometimes.”
Back upstream amidst the development on Lake Travis, Karen Bruett thinks water management strategies need to change.
“Our climate is changing,” Bruett said, “and yet we’re acting and behaving and making decisions as though we’re back in 1985. We need a reset based on facts and data and science. People are fleeing from places like California, only to find themselves facing exactly the same problem that they had there.”
Scientists push state leadership toward recognizing climate change
The scientific community has been pushing the governor to recognize the term “climate change” and its role in events like natural disasters.
Gov. Abbott notably said in 2019, when pressed about hurricanes and climate change, that he is “not a scientist, and it’s impossible for me to answer that.”
And before taking office as governor when he was Texas Attorney General, he repeatedly sued the Environmental Protection Agency over climate-related issues.
Surface water, like the water in the Highland Lakes, makes up about half of the state’s existing water supply. Experts like the state climatologist said it is highly vulnerable to climate change and how it accelerates evaporation.
We asked Gov. Abbott’s office about the LCRA’s plan, climate change and the Board he appoints, and have not heard back.
In past legislative sessions, Republican leaders in Texas have supported large infrastructure projects to protect property from what is often termed at the Capitol “extreme weather” instead of using the phrase “climate change.”
But, they are well aware of Texas’ water needs.
There is a Senate plan working on track for the governor’s desk that would set aside billions to fund new water sources and pay for upgrades to the state’s aging water infrastructure.
Senate Bill 28 passed out of the Texas House 139 to 1. A separate Senate Joint Resolution to create a constitutional amendment also passed 135 to 4. The next step is for the Budget Conference Committee to decide how much to put toward the funding in the legislation. Supporters, such as the Texas Water Infrastructure Coalition, hope it’s $3-5 billion.
If Abbott put his signature on the plan, Texans would then have to give their approval to create the funds during the election this fall, for the state to move forward.
In-Depth: Central Texas headed for a more arid future as the climate warms
“We’re becoming warmer,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “Temperatures have gone up globally by almost 2°F at this point. The future is not certain, but it looks like we’ve got at least another degree to go, and probably a few more beyond that, depending upon what we do to the atmosphere going forward.”
While warmer temperatures can hold more moisture, contributing to even more dangerous flooding on occasion, Nielsen-Gammon said “the supply becomes more erratic,” adding he expects a net decrease in the amount of water we can depend on in the Highland Lakes due to the weightier effects of higher evaporation and longer periods without rain.
As local temperatures warm, vegetation zones are also changing.
The 100th Meridian — the 100°W longitude marker on a United States map — has long been considered an invisible dividing line between the arid Western states and the rainier, more lush landscape farther east.
“With climate change, I expect that dividing line between west and east Texas to move a bit farther east,” Nielsen-Gammon said.
“So basically, you’re saying the Highland Lakes — our drinking water supply for many of us — will move into that more arid landscape instead of the more lush one?” Yeomans asked Nielsen-Gammon during a recent interview.
“Effectively, yes,” Nielsen-Gammon responded. “The way I think of it, if you want to see what the climate is going to look like in the future, look a few dozen miles to the west.”
Creative Producer/Photojournalist Eric Henrikson, Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Editor Eric Lefenfeld, Investigative Photojournalist Chris Nelson, Digital Director Kate Winkle and Photojournalist Ed Zavala contributed to this report.