Millions of residents in Texas from the Austin area on down to the coast rely on the Colorado River and the future of that river is in jeopardy.
The people living in the City of Austin are dependent upon this river not only for their drinking water but also for many ancillary uses. When rain falls into the Highland Lakes the water eventually flows through a system of dams. These dams, such as Mansfield, create 'reservoirs' behind them and this is the water that Austin and environs rely on.
In our current drought cycle not nearly enough water is collecting in these lakes. Not only is rain important, it must fall into specific places in the watershed for it to be effectively collected and stored. Both Lakes Buchanan and Travis are well below their ideal levels and many local communities have enacted water restrictions. These restrictions apply mainly to outdoor, recreational watering but if the drought continues their may well be further types of restrictions. Already, several business that were lake based are now out of business.
Outdoor watering limits are a minor inconvenience in the overall scheme of things. Not only does the growing city of Austin depend on these lakes for everyday necessities, area farmers face increasing restrictions on the availability of water for irrigation.
Agricultural water use is the traditionally the largest piece of the pie when it comes to water use. In the summer of 2013 there were no irrigation releases from the Colorado River and there will most likely not be any during the summer of 2014 either. This severely impacts the ability of farmers to successfully raise crops and livestock. The economic impacts are staggering.
Another major crisis facing this river is the consequences of low stream flow downriver. With Austin using so much of the water in the river, of which there is an ever increasingly smaller amount, the communities downstream are facing even more severe impacts.
After Austin has made its withdrawal, much of the remaining water in the river is treated effluent. Due to the drought, there is little fresh inflow and this treated water is what cities and towns downriver have to make use of for their primary water supply. And yes, this includes drinking water.
The City of Bastrop has reported large of amounts of lead in the water even though the water has been 'treated' for lead in the waste water treatment plants. One component that the water has not been treated for is estrogen. When women take birth control pills some estrogen remains in the urine and ultimately enters the water supply. What are the consequences of this? It is not yet known, but there has supposedly been a large number of six-legged frogs discovered in the area.
Further downstream, rice farmers whose families have raised this crop for generations are not receiving enough water to continue. Since rice is a water intensive crop, little to no availability of fresh water from the river basically puts them out of business.
In the bays and estuaries that the Colorado ultimately empties into, the reduction of fresh water in flow has drastically and negatively impacted the nursery habitats that many types of flora and fauna require to survive. Some of these are cash crops, seafood for example, that have provided a living to many. Others, such as the whooping crane, are species that are now endangered and are at risk of disappearing, at least in Texas.
What can be done? One thing private citizens can do is replace grass lawns with xeriscaped yards that are planted with native, drought tolerant flowers and trees. Be aware, however, that a lawn of rock and/or gravel will only increase heat generation.
Developers need to stop requiring homes to have grass lawns when they are built. A xeriscaped yard can still be attractive and colorful and will go a long ways towards conserving water. City planners need to only approve projects that will not increase water demands and may even provide a reduction in need. Urban sprawl also needs to be reduced.
Unfortunately, there are some areas that we have little or no control over. One is the increasing population growth in Central Texas. While it is difficult, if not impossible, to adequately control, there are environmental accommodations (permeable surfaces, rainwater collection systems) that should be made to reduce the immediate impact these new residents have on water use in the region.
The other portion of the problem that we really have no control over is the amount of rain we actually receive. Conserving and making wise use of what does come down from the sky is imperative!
Anyone know a good rain dance?