LCRA Passes New Water Plan: More Water for Lakes, Less for Farming

Photo by Terrence Henry/StateImpact Texas

The LCRA voted to pass a new water plan today.

In what they’re calling the “most decisive issue” they’ve ever come across, the Lower Colorado River Authority voted today in favor of a new water plan that will change how much water goes from the Highland Lakes to customers downstream.

The water plan was created over the last 18 months by a group with representatives from lakeside businesses, rice farmers, the City of Austin and environmental groups. The plan will likely result in less water for rice farmers downstream, and more water in the Highland Lakes. “We have been through the most intense drought in our history,” TImothy Timmerman, chair of the LCRA board, said. “We’ve had the least amount of rainfall and lowest inflows into our lakes in history. We’ve never seen a drought quite this intense. One only needs to look to Lakes Buchanan and Travis to see something needs to change with our water plan.”

The vote was ten in favor and five against, with all of the against votes coming from LCRA board members that represent counties downstream of Austin and the Highland Lakes.

Before the vote, the board heard more public comment from many residents and business owners of the Highland Lakes and rice farmers as well. At times the testimony grew intense and emotional. Buster Cole owns a company that builds trams for people to access the lake. He says his business will likely lose close to a million dollars this year. “We are a lake based business; due to water level, no one is coming,” he told the board. “Our property value has lost 40 percent of its value because of the drop in lake levels. Devastation in the Highland Lakes is here now.” Cole said he’s  had to lay off 29 employees.

The rice farmers mostly sat on the other side of the room. Their reaction to the vote was reserved.

“This was an important thing today,” longtime rice farmer Billy Mann told StateImpact Texas. “Out of this comes something positive. Now the state recognizes the need for more surface water. Not only in the Colorado River, but also in the Brazos and other rivers. We’ve got a lot more straws now, a lot more industry and we need more water.”

Indeed some of the meeting was focused on exactly that — how the LCRA can find more water for its customers. “We don’t need to abandon our rice farming friends in the lower basin,” LCRA chair Timmerman said. “The key to this is to start the process of developing new water supplies now.” To that end, the board passed a resolution to find at least 100,000 acre-feet of additional water over the next five years, an initiative they announced last month.

The LCRA says the major changes in the plan are these:

  • “Using two trigger points during the year to determine how much stored water from the lakes is available for agriculture, mostly downstream rice farming. One trigger point, Jan. 1, would be used for the first rice crop and a second, June 1, would be used for the second crop. The current plan contains only a Jan. 1 trigger point.”
  • “Eliminating “open supply,” which is the practice of making unlimited water from the Highland Lakes available for downstream agriculture when the lakes are above a defined trigger point. In the future, the amount of stored water available from the lakes for downstream agricultural operations would have an upper limit at all times.”
  • “Asking firm water customers, mostly cities and industry, to reduce water use consistent with their drought plans only after interruptible water from the Highland Lakes for agriculture is restricted. Current practice can result in LCRA requesting firm customers implement voluntary conservation before agricultural water is restricted. Firm customers pay considerably more for their water than farmers and other “interruptible” customers.”

Right before the vote went forward, board member J. Scott Arbuckle seemed to surprise many on the board by adding a last-minute amendment to the plan that strongly favored the rice farmers. (Arbuckle represents Wharton County, where rice farming takes place.) “The dry conditions of 2009 and 2011 have made us realize that this new plan is going to have triggers and procedures much, much more critical than in the previous plan,” he said. “It’s more conservative in many ways.”

Franklin Scott Spears, Jr., who represents Travis County on the board, wasn’t having it. “These are way too numerous, especially to be presented at the eleventh hour,” he said. “I disagree with how this was done.” Spears noted that the plan had already been postponed “again and again” since October. “This drought is worse than the drought of record in my mind,” he said. “We can’t turn an ocean-liner around in that much time. People gave their words that this was the plan they would support.”

When Arbuckle responded that the amendments weren’t a surprise since he had given them to the board Monday, the crowd of lake business owners and residents at the hearing laughed loudly.

“This is serious business,” Arbuckle replied. “I don’t appreciate the chatter.”

“You bet!” someone in the crowd shouted back.

Arbuckle’s amendment failed to pass, with six votes for and nine against. The overall plan went forward, with the only amendment being one paragraph about rice farmers historic claim to the water.

The plan will now go to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and it will be up to them to pass it.

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