Facing a record-breaking drought with no end in sight, the Lower Colorado River Authority has again asked the state to allow us to not release water from the Highland Lakes for most downstream farmers this year unless substantial rainfall replenishes the reservoirs. LCRA’s Board of Directors took that action Jan. 8 for the second year in a row. Last year was the first time most rice farmers didn’t get any Highland Lakes water.
LCRA’s Board of Directors and staff hoped a wet fall would help lakes Buchanan and Travis, the region’s water supply reservoirs, recover. The forecasted wet weather never developed. Instead, the reservoirs have seen some of the lowest inflows on record, and the combined storage is now at about 42 percent of capacity. Considering that, and a dismal forecast of more dry weather in the long-term, the Board again asked our staff to seek emergency relief from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to allow LCRA to cut off water for most farmers this year unless conditions dramatically improve by March 1.
We understand this could impose a hardship not only on the farmers, but on the broader economy of Colorado, Wharton and Matagorda counties. But the grim reality of low lake levels, a continuing drought, and a bleak weather forecast for this year left little choice. Under the currently approved plan for managing the lakes, or under the emergency relief request LCRA originally submitted in November, more than 120,000 acre-feet would have been released from the Highland Lakes for irrigation this spring. And that could trigger a catastrophic series of events.
Releasing so much water would bring the reservoirs perilously close to 30 percent full, at which point all customers would have to severely curtail water use. The rice farmers then would be cut off completely, meaning they would lose their crops and the water already sent would have been wasted. If that happened, it would be not only a terrible waste of water but an unfair burden on LCRA’s firm customers, including the city of Austin.
In my 18 months as general manager I have seen how hard LCRA’s staff has worked to manage the Highland Lakes during this persistent drought. If staff hadn’t been so diligent over the years, Central Texas would be in much worse shape than it is today. To note just a few important steps:
·In 2008, with the lakes nearly full, LCRA sponsored a series of public meeting on the region’s future water supply. The resulting report included the possibility of off-channel reservoirs downstream. Today, that’s closer to becoming a reality and a sizeable addition to the region’s water supply.
·In April 2009, the Board approved new water conservation goals and strategies to help communities and farmers save water.
·In July 2010, LCRA formed a 16-member advisory committee composed of stakeholders from around the basin representing lakes area residents and businesses, farmers, cities, industry and the environment. They worked 18 months to provide input on a plan to allow LCRA to respond more quickly to manage the water supply during droughts. It was sent to TCEQ last year.
·In April 2011, TCEQ approved LCRA’s application to capture water in the Colorado River below Austin during high flows. That is water that eventually may fill off-channel reservoirs to supply agriculture and firm customers, and relieve some pressure on the Highland Lakes.
·In September 2011, LCRA sought emergency relief to curtail Highland Lakes water for most downstream farmers in 2012. That was approved by TCEQ on Dec. 7, 2011.
·In January 2012, LCRA’s Board set a historic goal of increasing water supplies by 100,000 acre-feet in five years.
·In August and September 2012, the Board authorized feasibility studies for three potential off-stream reservoirs below Austin to capture and store excess river flows. We are moving forward with the first of those reservoirs in Wharton County, a process that fits in well with the state’s push for new water projects in Texas.
That’s just a smattering of the work LCRA has done managing the lakes and preparing for possibly the worst drought on record. And just as much effort goes into preparing for the flood that will break this drought someday. We can’t make it rain, but we are all working as hard as we can to manage this vital resource so important to us all.
I know that’s cold comfort for the rice farming communities that may not have a crop to harvest for a second consecutive year. But the harsh truths of this devastating drought cannot be ignored. More than a million people depend on the Highland Lakes as their water supply, and it must be protected.