Big River

How Healthy Is Austin's Lifeline?

The view from Tom Miller Dam
The view from Tom Miller Dam (Photo By John Anderson)

Standing atop Tom Miller Dam, even during drought season, it's tough to get worked up over the future of the Colorado River, a lifeline for Austin managed primarily by the 65-year-old Lower Colorado River Authority. There's plenty of water as far as the eye can see -- and what's more, for the time being, there's drop after drop after drop to drink. Of course, folks haven't always felt so assured about their water quality and quantity. Judging by the debate this past spring over whether the city of Austin should enter into a long-term water-supply contract with the LCRA, it's clear that an awful lot remains at stake. It almost goes without saying that if the powers-that-be aren't careful to monitor and maintain the relatively pristine Colorado, life as we know it in Central Texas could dry up and blow away like so much dust. Even before Austin's earliest days, the Colorado River shaped the area. The history of humanity in what contemporary hydrologists call the Colorado Watershed -- a concept that makes this wide-ranging ecological region sound like so much indoor plumbing -- can be linked directly to the winding track of water that stretches from West Texas to the estuaries leading to Matagorda Bay. The Comanche and other Indian tribes camped along the banks of the Colorado not far from the land that was to become Austin. They hunted and fished along the river's banks, and swam and bathed in the river in the hottest days of summer.

The Tom Miller Dam, like so many others that contort and conserve the precious water flowing toward the Gulf of Mexico, tells a story almost beyond human proportions. At a little over 100 feet high, the dam, located just south of where Enfield Road meets Lake Austin Boulevard, was built in the 1930s to replace two earlier projects destroyed in massive floods. Since its completion in 1940, Tom Miller, which the LCRA leases from the city of Austin, has provided both hydroelectric power and water to Austin and its outlying areas. Lake Austin above the dam covers nearly 2,000 acres and is surrounded by lush hills.

Although the Colorado River in these parts was never bone-dry, there's not a source contacted for this story who doesn't believe that without Tom Miller and the other dams that gave birth to Austin's reservoirs and the Highland Lakes, Central Texas and communities downstream would hardly have any water at all. In this light, looking out at Lake Austin -- one of six reservoirs that make up the Highland Lakes -- it's tough not to be impressed with the fact that humanity has been able to harness so much of nature to serve its means. Eighty percent of Austin's drinking water comes from the reservoir behind Tom Miller Dam, while a small portion of it comes from Town Lake. Nonetheless, the hubris one might expect from the agency that had a hand in such a massive engineering feat seems in short supply when it comes to LCRA's employees. With six major dams under the authority's control, and dozens of counties relying on it for electricity and water, one imagines that LCRA bosses rarely get to enjoy the sort of megalomania that accompanies the few human endeavors that can be compared with controlling powerful rivers. Instead, managers concentrate on such day-to-day operations as writing contracts, monitoring lake levels and water quality, promoting ecological stewardship, and maintaining public relations.

The Lower Colorado River Authority is responsible for the nuts-and-bolts management of the Colorado. The agency operates the dams that form six reservoirs: lakes Austin, Travis, Buchanan, Inks, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Marble Falls, known collectively as the Highland Lakes.
The Lower Colorado River Authority is responsible for the nuts-and-bolts management of the Colorado. The agency operates the dams that form six reservoirs: lakes Austin, Travis, Buchanan, Inks, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Marble Falls, known collectively as the Highland Lakes.

More importantly, along with the city, state, and local citizens, the LCRA is currently in the position of trying to figure out exactly how to deal with growth in the region over the next 50 years while continuing to provide a healthy source of drinking water. And that job certainly doesn't come without controversy. Early this year, after a month of public scrutiny over whether the city of Austin's existing water supply could sustain projected growth, the city and the river authority ultimately entered into a contract guaranteeing the city drinking water through 2050, with a potential extension that could make the LCRA responsible for providing water until 2100. Opponents of the deal feared that the LCRA would use the city's $100 million payment to finance and promote sprawl over the Edwards Aquifer. Months after the signing of the deal, there are still those who contend LCRA is more beholden to developers who promote sprawl in environmentally sensitive areas than it is to the quality of our water.

Sound the Alarm

Despite the fact that the Colorado River's water quality has been slowly improving over the past decade -- particularly the water immediately downstream of Austin -- this vast resource still faces myriad threats. Two of the biggest headaches right now are non-point source pollution, such as runoff from roads and construction sites that contain toxic materials, and, of course, continued growth, which calls for more water and electricity use throughout the region. Add in persistent concerns over the proposed Longhorn Pipeline (which the LCRA opposes), toxic gasoline additives found in motorboat fuel, and exotic weeds discovered in Lake Austin, and the future looks as murky as many Texas streams do this time of year.

Jason Pinchback works for the San Marcos-based Texas Watch, a river-monitoring group funded largely by federal monies channeled through the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC). Pinchback says that while trends show signs of improvement in water quality, the amount of water that will be available in the future remains to be seen. He also says that, by and large, Texas' urban rivers are suffering because of a lack of overall funds to track pollution and other threats to water quality. With 191,228 miles of streams identified in the state, but only eight monitoring sites being manned on behalf of TNRCC, it's easy to understand why Pinchback is concerned. When he starts talking population numbers, however, his concern turns into outright alarm.

"When it comes to man and nature," Pinchback says, "mankind always comes out ahead in the short term. But we need to ask ourselves where we're going to be in the long term. In 40 or 50 years, we're looking at doubling both city and state populations, going from around 19 million here in Texas to nearly 40 million people, and there's no way with our current technology that we can meet those demands."

Back to the Future

Just as it's difficult to talk about the Colorado River without mentioning the LCRA's role in its maintenance, it's nearly impossible to discuss water quality today without a short lesson in recent history.

As any capital city angler worth his or her salt knows, the state last fall lifted an advisory on eating fish from Town Lake. As required under federal law, Town Lake, along with several other sections of the lower Colorado Watershed, had been listed as "impaired" under a portion of the Clean Water Act, because of high levels of pesticides found in fish tissue. Although the toxic chemical chlordane can still be found in sediments collected from the bottom of Town Lake, its longtime ban and the diminished levels of the chemicals in fish mark just one of the improvements resource managers point to when they boast about the current state of the Colorado.

The Colorado River's water  quality has been slowly  improving over the past decade, although there is still concern over the runoff contaminants that threaten the city's four urban creeks : Onion Creek, Barton Creek, Bull Creek, and Waller Creek : all of which feed the Colorado.
The Colorado River's water quality has been slowly improving over the past decade, although there is still concern over the runoff contaminants that threaten the city's four urban creeks : Onion Creek, Barton Creek, Bull Creek, and Waller Creek : all of which feed the Colorado. (Photo By John Anderson)

By far the biggest recent improvement to the waterway followed an expensive and much-needed upgrade to our city's wastewater systems, which followed a period in the mid-Eighties when cows reportedly wouldn't drink from the Colorado River downstream from Austin. While water quality upstream was buoyed by the dilution of pollutants in the Highland Lakes and a low level of industrial development upstream, sewage output from Austin proper -- which violated permitted levels hundreds of times in 1982 and 1983 alone -- led the TNRCC to consistently rate the river below Longhorn Dam "fair-to-poor," which reflected chronic, long-term problems that needed addressing under state and federal statutes.

Ten years and $400 million later, the 1999 State of the River report released by the LCRA rates Lake Austin and Town Lake a consistent eight (out of a possible 10) with regard to river health. The portion of the river running between Austin and Columbus, about 100 miles downstream, rates an "excellent" nine out of 10. So, even though the city population has almost doubled during the past 20 years, all things considered, the Colorado today shows limited signs of wear and tear.

In early May, on the stretch of river below Longhorn Dam where the waterway resumes its natural course, six teams of local Boy Scouts canoed 10 miles from Austin to Bastrop. It was the first time in nearly 20 years that troop leaders felt the river was clean enough to support such an activity.

For LCRA, the event, called a "Back to the River" celebration, heralded a major improvement in river health and provided a standard that the agency would like to see the city and state help uphold. "I am proud that, thanks to the teamwork of LCRA and the city of Austin, this segment of the river is now one of the cleanest in the state and can be enjoyed by the Boy Scouts and anyone else who loves the Colorado River," LCRA general manager Joe Beal said on the occasion.

The Coming Storm

These tales of redemption are the sort that make John Wedig smile. With pesticides on the wane and overall river health on the upswing, Wedig, an LCRA environmental specialist, has been able to enjoy these successes, and now has time to turn his attention to other issues facing the watershed. In particular, he's working with other LCRA managers on trying to handle the problem of non-point source pollution -- the array of substances and chemicals that stem from many common human activities. When it rains, much of this pollution ends up in local waterways as part of runoff. Ironically, while last year's drought may have exacerbated supply questions, the dry spell helped keep water cleaner because less pollution swept into streams. "When it rains," Wedig acknowledges, "that will be another story."
Big River

Sparky Anderson, director of Texas Clean Water Action, an environmental group based in Austin, ticks off a list of several of the biggest runoff problems in Austin: chemical fertilizers and pesticides draining from lawns and agricultural operations, residual automotive waste, such as rubber particles along roadways and effluent from leaky oil pans, and construction sites where loose dust and dirt wash away. Anderson notes that the city has made an effort to curb some of these pollutants by building retention ponds and requiring mitigation efforts. But, he says, in addition to potentially outpacing the infrastructure that's currently in place to provide drinking water, the ongoing building boom means that more soil is being disturbed in outlying areas. "Everything we do in our day-to-day lives has an impact on water quality," he says. "Fortunately, Texas began looking at some of this stuff very early on, but we still need to develop 'best management practices' to deal with non-point source pollution. That's a challenge we could have been preparing for; there was an opportunity for [the Bush administration] to get ahead of the curve and have some money in the bucket."

Instead, Anderson says, the TNRCC has kowtowed to monied interests, including developers, industrial water users, and, in some cases, river authorities. Permits for effluent discharge to many Texas rivers, he complains, have been approved with inadequate public comment, while in some cases baseline data concerning river health has yet to be established. "The tug-of-war is that polluters want to lower standards while we want high standards," Anderson says. "It has been up to the state to set those standards, but as we see it there still need to be some improvements."

The Nature of Things

As the summer progresses, a number of measures will determine what must be done to maintain water levels and quality throughout the Colorado River basin, as well as water quantity in the Highland Lakes. The state and LCRA both continue to worry over the proposed reopening of the Longhorn Pipeline, a gasoline line that crosses the watershed at various points and could create a huge problem if it were to spring a leak. Primarily for that reason, the LCRA is vehemently opposing the pipeline. In the meantime, the state also begins working this summer to institute 50-year water plans for 16 regions, as called for in state legislation passed in 1997; under the state Clean Rivers Program, a 10-year-old initiative designed to bring Texas in line with the federal Clean Water Act, monitoring and educational projects will continue to help citizens play a role in resource stewardship.

And that's where conservation measures come into play. "You can't disengage water quality from water quantity," says the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's Cindy Leffler. "What we hope to see as we continue under drought conditions is that as environmental uses are cut back, human uses are cut back as well. Droughts are a part of the natural cycle, but what we want to do is avoid making the drought we're currently experiencing artificially worse."

Anderson, of Clean Water Action, couldn't agree more; he believes that one place to start is within city limits themselves. In addition to addressing basinwide issues, Anderson says Austin must redouble its efforts to ensure clean drinking water in the face of massive growth. "The mayor has protected water rights for Austin, but the central city watershed has not been addressed enough," he says. "We're lucky we don't have the dirty technology that affects other cities, but the high-tech sector isn't as clean as people would have you think. All of our urban streams -- Onion Creek, Barton Creek, Bull Creek, Waller Creek -- are under an extreme amount of stress; they all flow into the Colorado. That's the reason we at Clean Water Action like to say, 'We all live downstream.'"

One measure that Anderson encourages his fellow Austinites to check out is a Consumers Confidence Report, to be released next month, that the Environmental Protection Agency requires utilities to provide to the public. Although the LCRA anticipates a clean bill of health, Anderson says that people should be prepared to review the list of contaminants and keep track of levels of chemicals in the water supply, especially those that could pose threats to children, pregnant women, and individuals with compromised immune systems.

City water resources manager Ed Peacock says that given the current standards for the Lower Colorado, Austin has no choice but to monitor closely the nutrient and chemical discharge to the river while keeping an eye out for potential violations of federal and state clean-water statutes. And he notes that all discharge permits must be approved by the TNRCC. Meanwhile, the city's wastewater and drinking water division has been trying to ensure an ample supply of potable water -- a project that should be helped along by a Watershed Protection Master Plan for the city due out at the end of August.

"Regionally, there are some big questions, and we're trying to look at our contributions," says Peacock. "But overall the restrictions we face are more stringent than any other waterway in the state, so we're trying to identify the watersheds that have problems, because that's where they need to be solved." end story

Got something to say? The Chronicle welcomes opinion pieces on any topic from the community. Submit yours now at

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle