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Drought hurting Lake Travis businesses

Posted: Tue, 18 Oct 2011 09:22 AM - 6,296 Readers

By: Gary Dinges

Carlos 'n Charlie's is a favorite stop for boaters in search of a burger and beer, but getting there these days is a bit of a challenge.

At 628.37 feet, Lake Travis was almost 40 feet below October's historical average of 666.20 feet and slowly falling late Monday afternoon, the Lower Colorado River Authority reported.

That's bad news for lake-dependent business owners who have taken a big hit this year.

Pete Clark, owner of Carlos 'n Charlie's and a related business, Just for Fun Watercraft Rental, said almost 40 percent of his customers are boaters. With waterfront businesses getting harder to reach, he estimates gross revenue is down 20 to 30 percent.

"I can't even imagine how devastating it will be if the drought continues," he said. "You would have no businesses out here."

With fewer amenities to choose from, many tourists decided not to visit Lake Travis this summer, said Lake Travis Chamber of Commerce President Laura Mitchell.

"The sweet spot on the lake is 660 feet," she said. "When we get below 660 feet, we start to see tourism suffer."

A recent report from the Lake Travis Coalition, a group of cities adjacent to the lake, shows just how serious things can get when the lake falls below 660 feet.

Annual visitor spending drops by as much as $33.8 million from the norm of $90.5 million. As many as 241 jobs are lost, accounting for $6.1 million in lost wages. Sales tax revenue dips $1.7 million. Hotel receipts decrease by $45,000. Mixed drink sales fall $120,000. Park visits are reduced by as many as 375,000 per year.

Those figures have very real consequences for communities such as Lakeway.

"The city of Lakeway is fundamentally a lake community and derives its very existence from its location on Lake Travis," Mayor David DeOme said. "If lake levels keep falling, a serious future impact will be the loss of property tax base."

Mitchell shares DeOme's concerns.

"Less money is being pumped into the economy," she said. "The dollars just aren't there."

That's the case at the Shores on Lake Travis, which offers vacation rentals primarily to out-of-towners.

"People learn about the drought and say, 'I've got to stay away,'" General Manager Daniel Garza said. "They hear the negative stuff and get discouraged."

Typical summertime occupancy is 90 percent or higher, he said, but this year it has hovered at 60 to 70 percent.

"When people call, they'll ask us, 'How is the lake?'" Garza said. "We tell them there are things to do even though it's low. The lake is accessible. It's usable."

The story's the same at Lakeway Marina.

"During August, boat rental revenues fell off a cliff due to press coverage of the low lake levels, and waterfront restaurants and other businesses were forced to lay off waitresses and dockhands due to lack of business," said Janet Caylor, the marina's principal owner. "Convenience stores, gas stations and lake-area businesses all suffered due to low visitations."

Mitchell, Caylor and others say the Lower Colorado River Authority made matters worse by sending water to farmers downstream.

"Some businesses did not make it to the Fourth of July because they had to relocate to remote areas or unplug their electrical equipment," Caylor said. "Others had never recovered from the summer of 2009 (drought), and these water management policies were their death toll."

LCRA spokeswoman Clara Tuma told the American-Statesman on Monday that the agency is seeking state approval to curtail or stop sending water to downstream farmers next spring if extreme drought conditions persist.

"LCRA balances the competing interests that depend on the Highland Lakes and the lower Colorado River through its state-approved water management plan," Tuma said.

"Over the last year, a committee of stakeholders from up and down the river have been studying the complexities of the water management plan, and the LCRA board is poised to recommend wide-ranging changes in the plan to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which must approve any changes to the existing plan."

"It's imperative that our interests are being looked at," Mitchell said. "There's a significant economy out here that needs to be recognized."

Even though business is down at Lakeway Marina and Carlos 'n Charlie's because of low lake levels, owners of both businesses say expenses are up.

Clark has had to extend his docks 600 feet because of the retreating water.

"We'll move 50 feet, then two weeks later, we'll have to go another 50 feet," he said.

Business was flat this season at Shore Club Volente Beach's water park, but owner Rick Redmond isn't complaining.

"We actually had a decent season," he said. "I was open fewer days, but revenue was about the same. We're pretty happy."

Redmond said the park is adjacent to one of the deepest parts of Lake Travis, making it immune to most of the drought's effects.

"We're fine," he said. "If you already have a boat on the lake, it's no problem."

But Redmond is a rare exception.

Caylor is optimistic that things will turn around. Enjoying the lake this fall is "worth the hike," she said.

Clark is holding out hope, as well.

"On several occasions I've seen this lake come up 20 to 25 feet in 24 hours," he said. "We're just praying for rain in the right spot."

*  Story Contributed by: Gary Dinges


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