Watermark

Texas’s Disappearing Lakes

Photo credit: Albert Mock

Lake Meredith, in the Texas Panhandle, was born in 1965, the product of a federal dam project on the Canadian River. For a generation, the water from this reservoir in the dry high plains country provided drinking water to 11 cities, including Amarillo and Lubbock. It is also the site of a national recreation area, long a popular site for fishing, swimming, and boating.

But as you can see from this remarkable time-lapse video, the lake has been shrinking steadily, hitting one record low after another.

One study found that there was no single factor causing the lake to disappear, but rather a combination of contributing factors, including a decrease in significant rainfall events that generate runoff and a precipitous decline in groundwater levels. The spread of brush, especially the water-hungry salt cedar, is also considered to be a likely contributor.

In 2008, receding waters revealed the wreckage of a private plane had disappeared in 1984. In 2011, the lake’s last marina closed, with the water half a mile from its docks. Just one boat launch remains. The municipalities that once depended on the lake for drinking water now rely mostly on groundwater – a resource that is more abundant in some places than others, and is on a downward trend throughout the region.

Lake Meredith is not the only Texas reservoir in trouble. The state’s lakes are at 63.9 percent of capacity, 20 percent lower than normal for this time of year, according to the Texas Water Development Board. While drought conditions have eased somewhat since the dry spell of 2011, the improvement hasn’t been enough to bring water levels back up.

Some Texas cities, such as San Antonio, have aggressive water conservation and recycling policies, which I wrote about in last week’s Forefront story. But despite the drought, far too many Texas cities – including those once served by Lake Meredith – don’t yet have strong conservation measures in effect. It’s all too clear that the lakes aren’t waiting around.

Watermark is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. She’s also on Twitter.

Tags: infrastructure, policy, watermark, drought, texas