Water is in short supply in Central Texas, which isn’t surprising to residents in Llano and surrounding counties. Following one of the driest years in 50 years, proponents of the Highland Lakes are fighting to protect the precious resource that not only generates revenue for the area, but also provides water to homeowners, businesses and wildlife.
Over the past several years, the Highland Lakes have been slowly drying up – currently the lakes sit at about 43 percent capacity or at about 860,000 acre feet, which is the combined total for both Travis and Lake Buchanan. That remaining 860,000 acre feet is the center of a fight between people who live on the Highland Lakes and those who depend on the water from the lakes for their crops.
Each year, the LCRA releases water from the Highland Lakes to rice farmers in Matagorda, Wharton and Colorado Counties to irrigate their rice farms. Those farmers in the Colorado Basin have senior rights to the water, and LCRA is required by Texas water law to release some of the water from the Highland Lakes to them.
Last year, the Lower Colorado River Authority voted to ask the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to issue an Emergency Drought Order for the Highland Lakes, which would allow the LCRA to release less water downstream to the rice farms. That request was granted.
On November 14, 2012, LCRA made the controversial decision to lower the trigger point in the board’s drought plan, which determines at what level water can no longer be released to the rice farmers, from 850,000 acre feet to 775,000.
On November 21, the LCRA filed a request with TCEQ, asking that they issue an emergency drought order, which would limit the release of water to the farmers to 121,500 acre-feet of water from the Highland Lakes in 2013 if the combined storage of lakes Travis and Buchanan is between 775,000 and 920,000 acre-feet on January 1 or March 1.
If combined storage is above 920,000 acre-feet on January 1 or March 1, LCRA would follow the 2010 Water Management Plan, which would make about 180,000 to 185,000 acre-feet of Highland Lakes water available for downstream farmers.
Water for a second crop, if any, would be available if combined storage is at or above 850,000 acre-feet on June 1 or Aug. 1. The amount available would depend on how much Highland Lakes water is supplied for first crop.
So far, the biggest struggle in the fight to keep the water in the Highland Lakes has been against those who live and work on the lakes, and those who depend on the water for irrigation. The farmers are struggling because they have only been able to grow a fraction of what they normally do, and those who live on the lakes are worried about not having drinking water.
And now, according to Southwest Farm Press, Ducks Unlimited has thrown another iron into the fire, opposing the prospect of not releasing the water for fear that it would endanger the waterfowl that live in the Colorado Basin.
In a press release from Ducks Unlimited, Kirby Brown, conservation outreach biologist, addressed the LCRA Board and said, “We realize that water allocation decisions are challenging, and that compromises have to be made. However, Ducks Unlimited feels very strongly that the needs of waterfowl and wetland wildlife in the rice prairie wetlands complex must be voiced and evaluated along with other stakeholder interests. There are significant economic impacts tied to rice agriculture and waterfowl hunting, as well as natural resource and cultural heritage considerations. We sincerely thank the LCRA board and staff for taking the time to hear our concerns, and we want to express our appreciation for their efforts to meet in the middle.”
The group also cites the economic impact to the area: “According to a Texas AgriLife economic impact analysis, on average, rice agriculture contributes $374.3 million and more than 3,300 jobs annually in Colorado, Wharton and Matagorda counties alone. Those numbers don’t include rice farming’s substantial contributions to the revenue and jobs generated from waterfowl hunting and other outdoor recreation in the state. Waterfowl hunting alone contributes $204 million to the Texas economy each year.”
The group’s stance could affect how TCEQ rules on the request to issue the emergency drought order.
As we move into 2013, the only thing certain about the future of the Highland Lakes is that it is uncertain whether there will be enough water to go around. Unless there is a sudden surge in rainfall, the levels of the lakes will continue to dwindle, and the fight over the water will continue.