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The Great Waco Water Watch

The City of Waco’s contingency plans for keeping water flowing for residents is top of mind as Texas sizzles in the summer sun

It wasn’t the Halloween season that had city officials in Waco spooked last October, but the drought. Even following months of Stage Two water restrictions remaining in place for local residents, authorities began cautiously eyeing a potential ramp up to Stage Three — a major escalation in conservation efforts.

“Back in the winter, when we hadn’t gotten any rain for a while, we were about 12 feet below the normal for Lake Waco,” remembers Jessica Emmett Sellers, Senior Public Information and Communication Specialist for the City of Waco. “That’s when [we] started going, ‘Okay, we’re approaching Stage Three. If we don’t get more rain, things are going to get super serious.’”

If instituted, Stage Three drought conditions would limit residents to once-per-week lawn waterings and pool fillings. And while many businesses are exempt from these conditions during Stage Two, that would not be the case for Stage Three.

“Right now, businesses have a little more leeway, especially businesses like landscaping,” explains Sellers. “In Stage Three, they’re restricted the same way as residents.”

Lake Waco water surface elevation
Chart from USGS

Summer was so hot in 2022, recounts Sellers, that Waco began seeing triple-digit temperatures as early as May, and continued experiencing such intensity until October.

“That was an intense, record-breaking period of heat,” she says.

A year ago, as Lake Waco’s water level sunk to 12 feet below average, officials began looking at the likelihood of a Stage Three upgrade. Beyond that, fears of a Stage Four categorization were even more unsettling.

“If we get into Stage Four, there are no pools at all, no watering at all. That’s super dire straits,” explains Sellers.

Luckily, the designation shift to Stage Three never occurred in 2022. An increase in precipitation helped re-saturate Waco’s ground, and largely keep it that way over the remaining winter and spring.

“It’s kind of a mixed bag,” says Sellers of the current conditions, adding that Lake Waco’s water levels in July 2023 are actually lower than the previous year. At the same time, twice as much precipitation has helped keep the ground saturated, allowing for reserves to build and the region’s flora to remain better hydrated.

“Even though the lake levels are lower, in certain ways we are in better shape, because people just don’t need to use quite as much water, because everything isn’t quite as dried out already,” she explains.

And while the region remains under Stage Two restrictions over a year after officials first announced the conservation efforts, some relief is in sight for residents. Local climatologists believe that the shift from La Niña to El Niño weather patterns will hopefully bring more rain to the area.

“We’re hoping that in the fall we’ll start getting some of those major rain events, both locally and up in the watershed, because that’s where it makes the most impact,” adds Sellers, referring to a larger regional area that empties into Lake Waco and the Brazos River via local waterways.

Perhaps more importantly, there are plans in place to ensure Wacoans have access to fallback water reserves when needed again. During last year’s contingency planning, city officials began looking at Waco’s water supply alternatives, including a reexamination of the town’s water rights for the Brazos River. Planners found that, if needed, the city could divert some of that water to augment Lake Waco’s supply so that it would be a mixture of the two.

Lake Waco Historical Volume (1964-2023)
Chart from Water Data for Texas

“What that entails ultimately is rerouting that water, treating it differently because it’s coming from a different source, so our water scientists are all over that to make sure the water quality coming out to customers is the same,” says Sellers.

Another option involved looking into the effluent from Waco’s three wastewater plants to reroute back into Lake Waco. According to Sellers, such a move could definitely increase available water supplies by “several million gallons a day. Although it would require different water treatment methods than what would be needed for utilizing the Brazos River’s waters, it is still feasible for the city.

Given the pace of such municipal projects, experts estimate that the contingency plans could become viable within 24-to-36 months. Thankfully, because of the slight reprieve via additional precipitation, “we’ve been able to take our time with that and really do our due diligence to make sure that we’re doing it the right way,” Sellers says.

Waco is on track to release its next five-year conservation contingency plan in 2024, which will include the wastewater and Lake Brazos water rights options, regardless of current drought conditions. For much of the time until then, however, Sellers puts it bluntly:

“Over the next couple of months, it’s just gonna be hot outside,” she says with a laugh. “That’s Texas, you know? That’s pretty typical summer weather, anyway.”

In the meantime, residents can take plenty of steps to ensure they continue to do their part in conserving water and helping the broader community. As individuals, just using less water overall in daily chores and activities can be a huge help, as well as considering local, native landscaping options for their homes such as rock formations and succulents.

“Even though the lake levels are lower, in certain ways we are in better shape, because people just don’t need to use quite as much water, because everything isn’t quite as dried out already.”
—Jessica Emmett Sellers, Senior Public Information and Communication Specialist for the city of Waco

“One of the biggest pushbacks we get from citizens is the expectation that their neighborhood lawns have to look like the lawns [of golf courses in] Augusta, Georgia. But [we] don’t live in Augusta,” says Sellers with a smile.

She advises such options as not replacing any trees that may be lost during winter storms.

“There’s going to probably be a point where you’re not going to be able to water them adequately, and then you’re back in the same position in a pretty short period of time. You don’t want to waste money,” says Sellers.

Being realistic while adjusting and managing lawn care expectations are key to weathering future, inevitable drought conditions in the years ahead. Sellers and her colleagues hope more and more residents will begin to see that “you can have a really nice-looking yard, still get that curb appeal, and not use a lot of water — it benefits you, as well as your neighbors.”

In the meantime, the city of Waco will continue exploring all its available avenues to keep the region and its inhabitants safe, healthy, and properly hydrated… just perhaps with less St. Augustine and Bermuda grass in their front lawns.

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