Texas Drought Leaves Lakeside Resort Far From Shore

Sep 5, 2013
Originally published on September 5, 2013 4:56 pm

Texas is experiencing a historic drought. While 2011 was the hottest year on record for the state, 95 percent of Texas is still in some form of drought.

One of the hardest hit areas is Central Texas in the Highland Lakes region, which until recently was a major tourist destination.

Two lakes, Travis and Buchanan, are the primary water supply for 1 million residents, mostly those living in nearby Austin, now the 11th largest city in the U.S.

When the lakes are full, they’re roughly the size of the island of Manhattan. The lakes are now at about one-third capacity, and about three feet from their lowest level in history.

The lakes are so low that many of the hotels and restaurants that had thrived for decades have closed down.

John Williams, who owns Thunderbird Lodge and Resort on Lake Buchanan, is planning to change his business into an event center, since it is no longer a lakeside lodge.

“The state climatologist predicts that this drought may last another five to 10 years,” Williams told Here & Now. “If that happens, I don’t think you will be able to truck in water for over a million people.”


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According to the Associated Press, the U.S. Forest Service said today that the rim fire in California was caused when a hunter allowed an illegal fire to escape. Fire crews continue to fight the blaze near the edge of Yosemite National Park. It now covers 357 square miles and is 60 percent contained.

It's one of the largest wildfires in California history and comes as the state is experiencing the driest year on record. Today we're going to look at how different parts of the country are weathering high temperatures and a lack of rain. In Texas, 95 percent of the state is experiencing some form of drought, that's the worst since the 1950s.

The Highland Lakes region near Austin is especially hard-hit with Lakes Travis and Buchanan at historically low levels. Those lakes supply water to one million people, also draw tourists. But with the lakes at one-third their normal levels, hotels and restaurants are closing down.

John Williams owns Thunderbird Lodge on Lake Buchanan. He's also on the board of the Central Texas Water Coalition. John, thanks for joining us.


HOBSON: Well, we say that it's on Lake Buchanan, but it sounds like there's no lake anywhere near your lodge anymore, right?

WILLIAMS: That's correct. Normally we have about 20 feet of water underneath our marina, and right now it's probably close to half a mile to the edge of the lake.

HOBSON: How long has it been like that?

WILLIAMS: Pretty much since July of 2011.

HOBSON: Wow, and this is just because there's been no rain for years now?

WILLIAMS: Well, it's been a drought on and off, and also the water management of the lakes has - it could've been done better as far as managing the water.

HOBSON: What would you like people to be doing in order to manage the lakes better?

WILLIAMS: Well, we are served by a group called LCRA, the Lower Colorado River Authority, and they manage the water. And in 2011 when the lake dropped to this level, they released about 450,000 acre feet of water, which was a record amount, and sent it downstream to rice farmers near the coast.

And I imagine all of them right now were wishing they had that water back.

HOBSON: Well, tell us about how this has impacted your business. You've got 24 cottages, you can accommodate up to 200 visitors. What's happened?


WILLIAMS: Well, people who normally come to enjoy the lake are not coming out anymore. We're still doing some family reunion business and retreats from different schools and churches and stuff like that, but the people who normally would come and keep their boat in the marina and go out on the lake and enjoy that are not coming anymore.

Our business from 2008 until now is off about 65 or 70 percent.

HOBSON: How long are you going to keep holding out hope that the water will come back?

WILLIAMS: Forever.


WILLIAMS: It's always come back before, when you look at the historical data of the lake. This is the longest run we've seen since I've been here, but what we're going to do is pursue some other opportunities here on our property. It's a beautiful part of Texas, the Texas Hill Country, and we're going to build an events center and focus on getting weddings and receptions and more retreats and stuff like that here for - to continue the business.

HOBSON: What are you doing about water for yourself, for plumbing in your home and that sort of thing?

WILLIAMS: Well, we rely on wells that are about 200 feet deep, and some of the wells in this area are starting to hiccup or start to go dry completely. In the past, in 2011 when it was so dry, we had friends whose wells gave out. We had friends coming here to use showers in our cottages, and there's communities in this area in central Texas that are having to truck in water now just to provide water to people for domestic use.

HOBSON: You're not having to truck in water yet, though.

WILLIAMS: No, our wells are still cooperating.

HOBSON: Are any of the other businesses around you staying open? Have they closed? What's happening?

WILLIAMS: Several have closed out on our lake. One of the other resorts on the other side of the lake went under and filed for bankruptcy. A store that is just up the road from us, a convenience store, gas station, bait and stuff, they closed up permanently. Carlos and Charlie's(ph), which was a restaurant down on Lake Travis, a little bit a ways from us, closed Monday for good - very famous watering hole there on Lake Travis where boats could pull in.

But with the lake levels being so low, they no longer could get traffic in there.

HOBSON: So as we said, you are also on the board of the Central Texas Water Coalition. What are you advising the authorities to do about this because I've seen on the website of the coalition that you say look, these lakes, Lake Buchanan and Lake Travis, are not just big buckets of water that you can take whatever you want out of.

WILLIAMS: That's right. We're asking that they plan better for the future. We are encouraging people to become educated on conservation, number one, conserving water any way we can; number two, become - education on what is available. With the amount of people coming into the Austin, Texas, area, we're going to need more and more water. That's expected to double over the next 50 years. And right now Austin is - has become the 11th largest city in the U.S.

So we're encouraging people to become educated about where the water is going from these lakes because when they find out how it's being used, they become very concerned.

HOBSON: And we should say these lakes are the primary water supply for a million Texans.

WILLIAMS: Over a million, yes, primary water source, and there's - the state climatologist for the state of Texas has predicted that this drought could last another five to 10 years.


WILLIAMS: And so if that happens, I don't think you're going to be able to truck in water for over a million people.

HOBSON: John Williams owns Thunderbird Lodge on Lake Buchanan in Texas. John, thank you so much for joining us, and best of luck. I hope you get some rain soon.

WILLIAMS: Thank you, Jeremy.

HOBSON: And when we come back we'll go to the Midwest and talk about crop insurance for farmers who are recovering from last year's drought.


Also a check-in on some other stories we're following. BP is in court to get a huge settlement overturned and to halt claims payments. The oil company had agreed to that settlement to avoid thousands of potential lawsuits over the 2010 Gulf oil spill. Details on that story and others later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Back in a minute, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.