Colorado River algae prompting call to action

The Colorado River in Bastrop County is rife with algae, impeding boaters and raising questions about the quality of the water, said Mark Rose, general manager of Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative.

“There are parts of the river where people on canoes or kayaks can’t even get through,” he said. “This is much bigger than just the river. It’s about recreation. There is a $50 million park system along the river and many businesses that operate along the river.”

So he fired what he called a “warning shot” to all stakeholders of the river. In a two-page letter delivered Monday to Bastrop County commissioners, Rose asked about the algae that runs thick in the Colorado River from Webberville to Bastrop. And he called for the Lower Colorado River Authority to develop a 50-year plan to address the quality and quantity of river water to meet the growth in the region.

“If everybody in this basin sits around for the next 30 years and does what we’ve done for the previous 30 years, we will suck the Highland Lakes dry,” said Rose, a former Austin City Council member who was general manager for the LCRA from 1990 to 1999. He now heads Bluebonnet Electric, the LCRA’s second-largest customer.

“I’m not proposing a plan,” he added. “I’m saying let’s develop a plan.”

Lakes Travis and Buchanan, which are regulated by the LCRA, supply Austin and the region with drinking water. Those lakes are 39 percent full and, barring a dramatic change in the weather, could hit a record low level in early August.

Lisa Hatzenbuehler, LCRA manager of water quality, said the agency has been monitoring the quality of the river since 1982 and in 2010 adopted the Water Supply Resource Plan, which looks into different options for all water supplies in the basin through the year 2100.

“We share his concerns for the river, lakes and tributaries,” she said. “We’re happy to talk with Mr. Rose, but it would be premature to commit to anything I don’t know anything about.”

Bluebonnet spokesman Will Holford said Rose has talked to Becky Motal, the LCRA’s general manager, and the agency’s board of directors.

The issues of water quality and quantity are interconnected, said Rose. With scarce rain and little water flowing downstream from Lakes Travis and Buchanan, a good deal of the water in the river is wastewater from the city of Austin. The city discharges more than 90 million gallons of effluent into the river daily.

Raj Bhattarai, manager of the environmental and regulatory services division for Austin Water, said the city’s twice-treated wastewater discharged into the river is “very, very clean. What we discharge below Lady Bird Lake is classified as exceptional quality by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and is approved by the Environmental Protection Agency.” The reclaimed water is used for nondrinking purposes such as manufacturing and irrigation of parks and golf courses.

Rose suspects the effluent might be causing the algae downstream. “In the absence of water quality monitoring, we do not know what is causing the algae or if it is having an adverse environmental and ecological impact on the river,” he wrote in the letter.

Hatzenbuehler said the nutrients from the treated wastewater could contribute to the algae growth. So could the low water flow, which creates favorable conditions for algae.

“We haven’t seen this (algae) before, but we started seeing it last year,” Hatzenbuehler said. “The overall quality of water at Fisherman’s Park in Bastrop is still good. The fish community is doing OK. The water is not unsafe.”

Rose said his idea for a long-range water plan should “balance the needs of every community along the Colorado River and equally considers all uses for its water — city and industrial, water supply, environmental and ecological concerns, tourism and education.” He wants the LCRA and the city of Austin to be involved.

He said he’ll brief Bluebonnet’s board next week. “We’ll talk to other communities. It will be a big group. I’m just a player in this, not the player,” Rose said.

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