Drought Lowers Lake Houston, Strands Boaters

Despite the drought, Houston isn't even close to running out of water.  The city is pumping record amounts, but the reservoirs are holding steady.  Right now, they're at 91 percent capacity.  Nevertheless, the effect on Lake Houston, the smallest and shallowest of the three reservoirs, has been dramatic.

Because of the drought, a historic railroad bed has emerged from Lake HoustonBecause of the drought, a historic railroad bed has emerged from Lake Houston

"I've been out here six years this is the lowest I have ever seen it.  Every day is a new low for me."

Sgt. Tolan Harding runs the police boat patrol on Lake Houston.

"Due to the low water conditions, we've towed a lot more boats off sandbars.  They don't realize the water's down so much.  They're going their usual route at their usual speed and their boat comes to a dead stop when they basically run into the bottom."

Harding takes me out on a flat-bottom aluminum boat.  First stop, a sinister-looking double row of jagged wood pilings.  It's an old railroad bed, abandoned in the fifties when the land was first flooded. It's now reemerging from the water.

"We're hoping if the lake goes down a little bit more, to be able to get out here and cut these down and take them out so they'll no longer be navigational hazards."

Next stop, the intake area for one of the city's drinking water plants.  When Lake Houston's full, the surface stands about 44 feet above sea level.  It's now down to about 37 feet.

Sgt. Tolan Harding of the Lake Houston marine unit inspects a solar water circulator near the city's water intake plantSgt. Tolan Harding of the Lake Houston marine unit inspects a solar water circulator near the city's water intake plant

"We're about 6 or 7 feet from exposing one of the intakes.  And Public Works I'm sure would like to keep some kind of 3-5 foot buffer over their intake so they can continue to draw water off of Lake Houston."

Public works spokesman Alvin Wright told me later that the city would never let the water get so low that pumping would have to stop.  Instead, the city would first order water be released from the Lake Conroe dam.  That would send 150 million gallons a day down the San Jacinto river to replenish Lake Houston.

"One of our concerns is to do the release in a manner that it doesn't disturb a lot of the sediments in Lake Houston also.  Because the fact is that it will provide an extra cost to us to actually keep turbidity down."

The city hasn't requested a release since 1988, and Wright says any decision is still two to four weeks away.  In any case, Lake Houston provides just a small percentage of the city's water.  The Trinity River provides 93 percent of the supply.

Finally, we head south toward the dam, weaving between snags and sandbars.  At Duessen Park, two of the three boat ramps are closed.  Docks dangle five feet above the muddy water.  The park is deserted, with no boats in sight.

"And that's, you know, some of the big effects of low water out here.  There's just not enough to recreate in anymore.  It's getting more and more dangerous and if you don't hurt yourself you're going to do some damage to your boat."

Like everyone I spoke to, Harding says simply: "pray for rain."

The city remains under voluntary conservation measures, and asks homeowners to water only twice a week, and only at night.

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