BELTON — Almost every speaker at the Bell County Water Symposium Thursday alluded to the drought of 2011, a natural disaster that has left many Texans wondering where their water is headed next.
The event, attended by more than 100 Bell County residents, was an opportunity to gather facts from local water regulators, policy makers and purveyors about what they are doing to safeguard the state’s water resources.
“The symposium is an opportunity to show the complex world of water issues not just in Bell County but across the state of Texas,” said Dirk Aaron, general manager of the Clearwater Underground Water Conservation District.
In the throws of the drought — during October 2011 — Belton Lake was 71 percent full and Stillhouse Hollow Reservoir was 61 percent full, according to the Brazos River Authority, which manages 11 reservoirs in the Brazos River Basin.
The most extreme example of the 2011 drought in the Brazos River Basin was Lake Somerville, which reached 41 percent full in October 2011.
In October of this year, Belton Lake was 88 percent full, Stillhouse Hollow was 91 percent full and Lake Somerville was 86 percent, according to BRA.
David Collinsworth, development manager for the Brazos River Authority, explained how the 2011 drought was “off of the charts” — an anomaly even in comparison to the three record-breaking drought years in the early 1950s.
Collinsworth speculated that the Texas weather cycle could indicate a repeat of the pattern of successive droughts but with one difference for water use — a massive increase in population.
“You all know that the drought of the 1950s just can’t be repeated because then we did not have near the amount of people,” Collinsworth said.
The 2011 drought caused BRA to release 66,369 acre feet of water from Stillhouse Hollow, dropping the lake levels to a still unpopular low because “releasing water from Belton Lake was not an option,” Collinsworth said.
“We found ourselves in a position where the only way we could get water downstream was to release it from Stillhouse Hollow Lake,” Collinsworth said.
One of the agency’s plans for future infrastructure growth is the $500 million Bel-house Connector, a water pipeline that would allow BRA to pump water between Stillhouse Hollow and Belton lakes.
The pipeline would likely prevent BRA from having to repeat the situation of disproportionate releasing of water from Stillhouse Hollow in the future, Collinswoth said.
Most controversial — for Bell County residents in attendance — was the planned pipeline expansion between Stillhouse Hollow and Georgetown lakes, which is in Williamson County.
Collinsworth said that less than 10 percent of the water in Lake Belton and Stillhouse Hollow originates in Bell County. The majority comes from watersheds thousands of miles north.
“We can’t pretend that the water in Lake Belton is the property of Bell County,” Collinsworth said.
To which one resident responded, “But it isn’t the property of Williamson County, either.”
Most infrastructure expansion projects are 20 to 60 years in the making, Collinsworth said.
Collinsworth argued the best solution to solve Texas’ water shortage problems is conservation.
“With the rate of people moving to Central Texas, the days of plush green St. Augustine yards are gone,” Collinsworth said. “We are going to have to convince our folks that there is a better use of water.”
Another unpopular water-related issue was the potential listing of the Salado Salamander on the national endangered species list, which could have major economic implications for water use in the Salado watershed.
Bell County residents complained that the listing of the amphibian would drive up the costs or prevent access for thousands of homes to fresh water.
Lisa Elledge, policy adviser for the Texas comptroller, spoke about her office’s push for better science in determining which species will be protected by the Endangered Species Act.
She said the comptroller is working to reform the law, which was passed in 1972 and updated in 1992.
“In today’s time it is not really working the way it worked years ago,” Elledge said. “We would like to see the act work better.”