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Take careful look at LCRA’s plan

Last year and again this year, rice farmers downstream of Austin discovered the meaning of “interruptible” in the contracts they hold with the Lower Colorado River Authority. For the first time ever, the LCRA, reacting to the drought that has reduced the water flowing into lakes Travis and Buchanan to historic lows, refused to release water to the farmers.

Also in response to the drought, the LCRA’s board adopted a revised water management plan in last year and submitted it to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for review and approval. In a letter sent Monday to Becky Motal, the LCRA’s general manager, the commission’s executive director, Zak Covar, said his agency wanted to further evaluate LCRA’s proposed changes to its plan for managing Travis and Buchanan before deciding the plan’s fate. Covar estimated it would take TCEQ another four months to collect and report new data and information about the plan.

LCRA supported the agency’s decision — what else was it going to do? — as did a group representing rice farmers. Additional review is a good idea. It’s important to get the LCRA’s water management plan exactly right.

Managing the Highland Lakes and the Colorado River Basin and balancing the region’s varied interests are complicated tasks. There are new and decades-old contracts to honor — the farmers’ interruptible contracts and the “firm” contracts held by Austin and other customers. There are state mandates to maintain and wildlife habitat to consider.

As we’ve written previously, we support the LCRA’s efforts to develop projects downstream to reduce the amount of water needed for agriculture from Travis and Buchanan, the primary sources of water for Austin and many other Central Texas communities and businesses.

The LCRA’s water management plan increases the authority’s ability to limit or cut off the water it sends to downstream farmers and gives priority to holders of “firm” contracts, who pay a premium to guarantee their water supply. Still, critics say the LCRA’s plan gives rice farmers too much.

As the American-Statesman’s Marty Toohey reported this week, TCEQ’s decision to seek more information about LCRA’s plan was seen as “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.”

Lakes Travis and Buchanan were 39 percent full Thursday afternoon, according to the LCRA’s website. The two lakes held a combined 788,571 acre-feet of water. (An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, or roughly the amount of water three average Austin households use annually.)

The severity of the drought, along with the Austin region’s population growth, has reshaped the dynamics between LCRA’s Central Texas customers and the rice farmers it serves downstream in Matagorda, Wharton and Colorado counties. Austin and other urban customers have gained clout while downstream agricultural interests have lost power and influence.

The rice farmers — the more perceptive ones anyway — know things have changed permanently and are switching to other crops that require less water. Rice farming in the Colorado River Basin has a long, rich history and may never disappear entirely but it will never again be what it was.

Rice farming downstream is largely unsustainable in an increasingly crowded Texas, and the LCRA frequently has earned the criticism that has come its way. But the farmers and LCRA also are convenient targets for those Central Texas residents who howl about the loss of water they consider theirs while showing little inclination to rethink and change their own water-wasting ways.

If Austin continues to grow at its current rate, adding 25,000 people a year, the city will be home to more than 1 million people by 2020. Non-farm water demand is expected to double over the next 50 years while agricultural demand is expected to continue falling. Local and state leaders encourage and court growth, which means lake life, as we know it, may be as unsustainable in many ways as farming rice. The hard look thrown downstream farmers is deserved. So too is a hard look at growth around the lakes.

We appreciate the effort by the state and LCRA to better manage the Colorado River’s water supply. A finely tuned plan is necessary in a region where every drop of water counts more and more, and where misusing water can be tolerated less and less.

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