What’s up, docks? Dry spell takes toll on DFW lakes

Posted Wednesday, Mar. 12, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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By the numbers

0.84 At DFW Airport, 0.84 inch of rain fell from Jan. 1 to Wednesday, making it the third-driest start to a year on record.

    If DFW doesn’t get rain soon, it could become the second-driest start to a year by the end of the weekend.

    Across Texas, the reservoir capacity is 64.3 percent, down more than 2 percentage points from the same time a year ago.

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At the Arrowhead Shores development in rural Hood County, the shoreline is nowhere to be seen.

Instead of water lapping on the banks of modest homes north of Granbury, the lake bed is filled with tall brush and the boats are stranded in docks that lead to nowhere.

Lake Granbury has dropped 9.5 feet below full, an all-time low.

But it’s far from the only place that’s struggling.

At Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, 0.84 inch of rain fell from Jan. 1 to Wednesday, making it the third-driest start to a year on record. In Waco, where 0.81 inch has fallen since Jan. 1, it is the driest on record.

If DFW doesn’t get rain soon — and there’s a chance Saturday night and Sunday — it could become the second-driest start to a year by the end of the weekend.

Across Texas, the state’s reservoir capacity is 64.3 percent, down more than 2 percentage points from the same time a year ago.

Other area lakes are also feeling the pain.

Upstream from Lake Granbury, Possum Kingdom is more than 13 feet below full. And downstream, Lake Whitney is more than 11 feet below normal.

On the West Fork of the Trinity River, Lake Bridgeport is more than 21 feet below full and Eagle Mountain Lake is more than 7 feet below full — but it is boosted by water being pumped into the lake.

“We really haven’t seen any runoff at all since December or early January. We’ve just kind of been on hold since the start of the year,” said David Marshall, the engineering services director at the Tarrant Regional Water District.

Dan Huckaby, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said the area is already 5 inches below normal.

“We’re really going to need the spring rainfall or it’s going to be another summer of drought conditions and water supply issues,” he said.

El Niño impact

Whether the spring rains will come remains to be seen. Long-range forecasts from the Climate Prediction Center aren’t really suggesting whether it will be wet or dry.

Since the drought began in October 2010, North Texas has lost the equivalent of a year’s worth of rain.

“Even if we get some rain, it could easily be as bad as what we saw last summer,” Huckaby said. “Chances are that overall lake levels will go down further this summer. We’re already seeing exceptional drought return to Montague County. And if you go a little further to Wichita Falls, things are more serious.”

Besides the effect on lakes, the dry weather poses another concern.

Unless it rains soon, State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said, the drought will start affecting agriculture.

“If I were a farmer and rancher, I would be getting a bit nervous,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “We’re approaching the planting season and we need soil moisture for the seeds to germinate.”

There’s hope that El Niño, a weather pattern that usually brings more rain to Texas in late fall or winter, will form later this year. But it won’t come by spring or summer.

“This is our big shot to break out of this pattern,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “The long-term patterns in the Atlantic and Pacific favor drought. You could have El Niño next winter and then have the drought start up again. We just don’t know how long the prolonged dry pattern could last. It could be anywhere from two years to two decades.”

Rising tensions

But in places like Hood County, low lake levels have led to rising tensions.

Residents blame the Brazos River Authority for allowing the lake to get so low. It’s the main topic of conversation for elected officials, County Judge Darrell Cockerham said.

“Everywhere we go, it’s ‘What are you doing about the water?’ ” Cockerham said.

A proposal to sell an additional 40 billion gallons of water from the Brazos basin has residents worried that lower lake levels could become permanent.

“We’re concerned that the state is letting some river authorities sell water we don’t have,” said Hood County Commissioner Steve Berry, a former Arlington firefighter.

The county is also worried about taking a hit in its appraisals.

If the waterfront and canal-side homes no longer have water in front of them, the impact would be significant.

A TXP study commissioned by the Lake Granbury Area Economic Development Corp., Hood County and Granbury found that lake-related properties account for 6.8 percent of the county’s land area but 35.9 percent of its tax base.

“If our appraisals drop because these are no longer waterfront homes, it would devastate us,” Cockerham said. “It could take us a decade to recover.”

But Matt Phillips, government relations manager for the Brazos River Authority, said the drought is to blame for Lake Granbury’s historically low levels and added that it is not a preview of what the lake will look like in the future.

The Brazos River basin, which stretches across 72 counties from the Texas-New Mexico border to the Gulf of Mexico, is 72 percent full but at a lower level this spring than in previous years, Phillips said.

The upper-basin lakes of Possum Kingdom, Granbury and Whitney are several weeks away from reaching Stage 2 restrictions, which would ask for a voluntary 10 percent reduction in water use.

The authority hasn’t released water for downstream use since the lake was last full about 18 months ago, Phillips said, but water has been released for environmental flows and local users, including the Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant.

Microcosm of the state

The river authority’s effort to get a permit from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to take more water from the basin is on hold as more modeling work is done to comply with environmental-flow requirements.

Phillips said the authority hopes to have the permit before the State Office of Administrative Hearings by August and back before the environmental commission in early 2015.

But Hood County officials say the low lake levels show that the water simply isn’t there.

“All they’re doing right now is overselling their water rights,” Berry said. “Why are they considering selling more water until they solve the problem with the lower level of these lakes?”

If the drought continues, the friction between water providers and lakeside residents isn’t likely to go away. Phillips noted previous issues with lakeside owners around Lake Travis near Austin and Lake Conroe, north of Houston. And the Brazos River Authority has previously had residents complain at Lake Limestone when it was low.

“I think this is a microcosm of the entire state,” Phillips said.

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Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698 Twitter: @fwhanna

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