LCRA water plan needs more study with drought in mind, state says

Texas’ environmental agency is putting the brakes on a long-term plan for managing Central Texas’ main water supply, saying Monday that the managers of the Highland Lakes may not be adequately accounting for the kind of drought now affecting the region.

The Lower Colorado River Authority, which manages the lakes, must “take into account information raised in … public comments, such as recent streamflow,” according to a Monday letter to the river authority from Zak Covar, executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Covar wrote that the environmental agency plans to spend four months more gathering information about the drought’s effect on the lakes before passing the new plan along to the commission board for a final vote.

Lakes Travis and Buchanan, used as reservoirs for Austin and much of the region, are now 39 percent full, with this year’s inflows “on pace with record-low 2011,” according to the river authority’s website.

“We welcome the further review, and LCRA stands ready to assist TCEQ as needed,” Becky Motal, the river authority’s general manager, said in a statement.

The environmental commission’s decision is a small victory for officials from several Central Texas cities, lakefront business owners and politicians who contend the river authority has been too willing to release lake water downstream to coastal rice farmers.

The drought has exacerbated the tension. Earlier this year, under pressure from key state lawmakers, the river authority’s board of directors decided against a springtime release to the rice farmers, the second year in a row the farmers were cut off.

Those were situation-specific decisions, however, and the river authority also drafted a long-term plan its critics say set standards that are too generous to the rice farmers.

“We need to take the drought into account in coming up with a long-term plan. We spend all of our time, it seems, bumping from emergency order to emergency order,” said state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who along with state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, have called for a plan that gives greater emphasis to the needs of Central Texas cities and power plants.

Rice farmer Ronald Gertson said the river authority’s proposed plan does contemplate severe drought but said he does not object to a closer level of scrutiny.

“There’s no question the water management plan properly takes into account the drought of record,” said Gertson, who leads the Colorado Water Issues Committee, which works on behalf of rice producers. “The question is whether we’re in a new drought of record. The ramifications of this plan are so great, particularly in the midst of this drought, that additional study and input is appropriate.”

One of the issues is whether cities and other customers who pay a premium to have “firm” contracts should receive preferential treatment over the rice farmers, who have “interruptable” contracts under a decades-old arrangement. Watson and Fraser want to require the river authority to cut off the rice farmers entirely before asking cities to curtail their water consumption, as the river authority has done for conservation’s sake.

In 2011, Austin officials were quietly furious when the river authority released water for two harvests despite the dry years of 2008, 2009 and what turned out to be one of the driest periods on record in 2011. That year, in keeping with its water management plan, LCRA released 433,000 acre-feet to the farmers, roughly what Austin uses in a year.

Watson said that absent significant rainfall, another such release would effectively push the region into a new drought of record.

Motal, the river authority general manager, said in her statement that if the drought does not break the rice farmers could be cut off again.

“There is no more important issue facing this region now than the drought,” Motal said, “and having a plan that protects the water supply for our firm customers is critical.”

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