In a special meeting held Tuesday, January 8 in Austin, the LCRA Board of Directors heeded the recommendation of LCRA staff to amend the emergency drought relief request that the board submitted to TCEQ in November.
The amended request comes after Senators Troy Fraser and Kirk Watson blasted LCRA for their original petition for relief to TCEQ which called for the release of water downstream to first in time, first in right water customers, the rice farmers in South Texas. The original request said that water would be released unless the Highland Lakes fell to a combined storage total of 750,000 acre feet, allowing for approximately 121,500 acre-feet to be sent to the rice farmers down stream.
In addition to the Senators, Central Texas Water Coalition and local and county officials have also voiced opposition to LCRA’s actions.
A press release from LCRA Tuesday afternoon, states, “LCRA staff recommended the measures the Board approved to protect LCRA’s municipal and industrial customers during the prolonged drought gripping the lower Colorado River basin. The amount of water flowing into the Highland Lakes, called inflows, was the lowest on record in 2011, and the fifth lowest on record in 2012. In fact, five of the 10 lowest years on record for inflows have occurred since 2006. Lakes Travis and Buchanan, the region’s water supply reservoirs, currently are about 41 percent full, holding about 826,000 acre-feet of water.”
The new request sets the limit at which water can be released to a combined storage of 850,000 acre-feet and has only one date – not two – that will be the checkpoint for the demarcation. March 1 will be the determining date, so if the water levels dip below that 850,000 acre-feet level, the Gulf Coast and Lakeside irrigation systems would get no water.
If the levels are greater than that 850,000 level, than those irrigation systems will receive 121,500 acre-feet of water. In order to guarantee that they receive that amount, LCRA will have to release approximately 125,000 acre-feet to counter the effects of run-off and evaporation as the waters travel downstream.
The vote, which will be seen by many along the Highland Lakes as a positive step, does not guarantee that water will not be sent downstream. TCEQ will make the final decision. Since the rice farmers and those irrigation systems in the Colorado, Wharton and Matagorda counties have first rights to the water since they were established prior to the LCRA and the Highland Lakes, TCEQ must determine that the drought is significant enough to issue the emergency order.
“We’re in the middle of a drought that could end up being the worst in recorded history,” said LCRA General Manager Becky Motal. “This drought has been painful for everyone, but LCRA is committed to protecting the water supply of the City of Austin and the other communities and major industries throughout the basin.”
The drought relief LCRA is seeking is similar to the relief TCEQ granted in 2011 that led to most downstream farmers going without Highland Lakes water in 2012. If approved, the new drought relief would cut off Highland Lakes water to most farmers unless the combined storage of lakes Buchanan and Travis is at or above 850,000 acre-feet at 11:59 PM. on March 1, 2013. The requested relief works as follows: Provide no stored water to farmers in Gulf Coast and Lakeside irrigation divisions if the combined storage is below 850,000 acre-feet provide up to 121,500 acre-feet of stored water for irrigation if the combined storage is between 850,000 acre-feet and 920,000 acre-feet on March 1; or provide stored water in accordance with the current Water Management Plan if the combined storage is at or above 920,000 acre-feet on March 1.
If combined storage on March 1 is at or above 920,000 acre-feet, any stored water that is made available for first crop under the current Water Management Plan and is unused could be available for second crop. If combined storage on March 1 is between 850,000 acre-feet and 920,000 acre-feet, a limited amount of water would be provided for second crop only if storage on July 1 is at or above 950,000 acre-feet.
The water customers along the Highland Lakes are not the only ones fighting to keep the water – Ducks Unlimited spoke out against restricting the release and on January 4, rice farmers in the lower Colorado river basin issued a press release regarding a letter issued to Senators Troy Fraser, Glenn Hegar and Kirk Watson, which said that they are “offering to work with the Senators and stakeholders to ensure that downstream reservoirs proposed by the Lower Colorado River Authority are built. The reservoirs would “provide for more efficient delivery of stored water” and “relieve considerable pressure from the main storage reservoirs” of Lakes Travis and Buchanan, the letter said.”
The press release says that the lower basin counties face “significant economic and social suffering” if LCRA decides to cut off irrigation water or rice farmers this spring, the letter explained. Leadership is needed to “halt the fatal momentum that would destroy irrigated agriculture in the state while offering no solution for sustainable growth.”
In a joint statement from Senators Fraser and Watson Tuesday afternoon, they said, “We are pleased that the LCRA Board acted today to protect the water supply for Central Texas water customers in this time of serious drought. Their action today will provide a safeguard so that an ongoing supply of water will be available in 2013 and beyond to its firm water customers.”
In regards to the decision made today, LCRA General Manager Motal said, “the Board said in November that it would consider altering its request for emergency relief if conditions warranted, unfortunately, this devastating drought has shown no signs of breaking, so LCRA must continue to make difficult decisions to responsibly manage the water supply during this painful time.”