SPICEWOOD BEACH, TEXAS — The intense storms throughout Texas in May wrought havoc on many communities, causing death and destruction, but they also brought relief to some of the most parched places in the state. In 2012, the small central Texas community of Spicewood Beach became the first area in the state to run out of water. Located about an hour north of Austin by the Highland Lakes, a chain of dams and reservoirs along the Colorado River, for the next two years the unincorporated township had to have water trucked in.
At the time the water ran out, the state was in the midst of a crippling drought — think California 2015 — and Texans were wondering if the rains would ever return. Some were even taking then-Governor Rick Perry’s suggestion and praying for rain. For Spicewood Beach and much of Texas, the drought conditions didn’t fully alleviate until a few weeks ago when torrential rains and heavy storms overtook large swathes of the state for much of May. In just a matter of weeks, what became the wettest May on record brought the state entirely out of drought — and it brought Spicewood Beach residents a great, if only temporary, sense of relief.
You’ve always got to think it’ll get better.
“You’ve always got to think it’ll get better,” Jim Regan, a cook who’s lived in the community of around 1,200 for 16 years, told ThinkProgress as he checked his mailbox. Regan said that “some people got really freaked out” when water started getting trucked in, and that now it’s “just nice to see the water.”
After the wells serving Spicewood Beach started failing as lake levels plummeted, the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) approved a $1.2 million water treatment plant for the area to be built and operated by Corix Utilities in 2013. The project takes surface water from the depleted Lake Travis rather than the even further depleted local groundwater sources. It ran far behind schedule and was only recently completed. Regan said the rains brought residents a sense of financial relief as well.
“Corix was sending out letters saying if the drought continues they will have to raise water rates,” he said. “So everyone is relieved because we have a lot of people on fixed incomes out here.”
Getting to Spicewood Beach from Austin involves driving through a series of suburbs that diminish in size, along with the roads. Just outside of Austin, the four-lane highway passes through wealthy exurbs like Bee Cave, where the city hall is located in a sprawling and gleaming strip mall. A half-hour later, a small turn onto Texas Spur 191 runs into Spicewood, a one-street town with a house-sized library and a general store. Spicewood Beach is another ten minutes down the narrow two-lane road.
Regan said many other people in the community were waiting for the lake levels to rise again — which requires heavy rains and flood runoff — in order to sell their houses and move upriver to places like Marble Falls, where water levels must remain constant in order to keep the hydropower dam functioning. However, with the water up several dozen feet from knee-deep levels as recently as early May, the appeal of boating, swimming and fishing for the first time in over five years might entice people to stay a little longer.
Scott Bryn, who is moving into a house across the street from Regan, told ThinkProgress that he talked to people working at the LCRA as well as neighbors before deciding to make the move to Spicewood Beach. He said they convinced him Corix’s new water plant resolved the extremely dire water issues. However, up until a few weeks ago the area was still in stage 4 emergency drought restrictions, which ban all outdoor watering and encourage customers to cut out all but essential water use. The area is now under the much more lenient stage 2 restrictions.
“Everyone is happy,” said Bryn, who has a sailboat on the lake. Bryn said he’s had many conversations with other boaters about whether the water would come back in their lifetimes. “The people with the LCRA were just saying ‘we don’t know, we just don’t know,’” he said.
Bryn said that the rising water had caused in upsurge in visitors to the Spicewood Beach lakefront in the evenings, from about two to twenty. Like Regan, he understands the relief to only be temporary.
“All the new rooftops between here and Austin are going to be taking water out of the aquifer,” he said. “Yes it’s scary.”
The LCRA was created in 1934 to bring water, power, and recreational opportunities to over one million people in central Texas. As recently as February, the LCRA was saying the ongoing drought has created a new “critical period” for the seven Highland Lakes — one that was even worse than the 1947–1957 drought, the worst on record. Before the recent rainfall, the system contained about 717,000 acre-feet, or 36 percent of capacity. Over the course of May, Lake Travis, the largest of the Highland Lake reservoirs, rose 36 feet and is now 78 percent full.
Because of the unpredictability of rainfall, much of the state relies on reservoirs for to supply water during extended dry spells. Many of these reservoirs were originally built for flood control along the rivers, but now operate as critical water supplies. Much of central Texas has shallow topsoil and heavy rains have nowhere to go other than to flow into surface outlets like rivers and streams that quickly become overwhelmed by the volume.
Currently the LCRA is building its first new lower Colorado River basin water supply reservoir in decades, the Lane City Reservoir. The system is already over-taxed and while building new dams is a controversial practice in an already over-allocated water system, the growth of the region leaves few simple solutions. The multi-year drought has already reduced the amount of water LCRA can provide reliably each year by 100,000 acre-feet to 500,000 acre-feet.
“We received significant rainfall in the watershed above Lake Travis, but the heaviest rain fell downstream of Austin,” Clara Tuma, a public information officer with the LCRA, told ThinkProgress.
Tuma said the recent rain “underscored that the lakes are doing what they were designed to do” — provide flood control and water supply management.
Much of the rest of the state is not as well prepared for such intense downpours.
On June 1, President Obama declared a major disaster in Texas and ordered federal aid for local recovery efforts in three of the hardest hit counties — Harris, Hays, and Van Zandt. The May storms crisscrossed the state, and the damage was far-ranging: Van Zandt is near Dallas, Harris is around Houston, and Hayes is just south of Austin. Spicewood Beach is in Burnett county, north of Austin. Overall, the storms caused at least $27 million in infrastructure damage and the lives of more than 23 people.
In central Texas, the storms represented the most severe flooding since the infamous Memorial Day Flood in 1981, which ripped through Austin killing 13 people and damaging millions of dollars worth of property. In the 30 years since, the state has done little to make floodplains less prone to flooding, and as CityLab reports, many of these areas have skyrocketed in population. Cities and towns are often responsible for their own flood mitigation efforts — such as the extensive and expensive underground tunnel being built to relieve Austin’s Waller Creek of flood damage during torrential rains.
The 2012 State Water Plan points out the role that the combination of flooding and drought have played in driving the state’s approach to water management, stating that “when reviewing the history of weather events, it is easy to see that the major policy changes in the management of Texas’ water resources have largely corresponded to cycles of droughts and floods.”
According to the plan, the massive rains that ended the decade-long drought in the 1950s “resulted in the flooding of every major river and tributary in the state.”
That drought cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars, and the subsequent flooding caused damages of around $120 million.
Sixty years later there’s the additional challenges, and costs, posed by climate change. Texas is expected to become hotter and drier as a result of climate change, with temperatures projected to rise about a degree every 20 or 30 years in Texas.
Even if rainfall doesn’t change, droughts will become more severe.
John W. Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist and Texas A&M; professor of atmospheric sciences, told ThinkProgress that in most climate models, the largest driver of extreme droughts is increased temperatures, and that “even if rainfall doesn’t change, droughts will become more severe.”
He said that the primary change rendered by the wet May is that “most surface water supplies are in good shape and water suppliers will not be worrying about the consequences of one more dry summer.”
Nielsen-Gammon reiterated what others have said — that El Niño appears to be the primary cause of the recent extremely stormy weather, and that “the continuing El Niño will favor the wet weather for Texas once the summer is over.”
While he is hesitant to connect any one weather event or series of events to climate change directly, he said that “whatever eventually turns up regarding the role of climate change in all this, the event serves as a reminder of our continuing vulnerability to weather extremes.”
When asked what sort of extreme weather Texans can expect as the impacts of climate change become more apparent, Nielsen-Gammon said that on top of rising heat waves and more intense droughts, tornadoes, hailstorms, and hurricanes could all show up in higher frequencies, although “the jury is still out.”
There is at least one silver lining.
“I suspect snow storms and ice storms will decrease,” he said.