The Colorado River provides water to cities, towns, industry and agriculture from West Texas to the Gulf Coast. After 18 months of often bitter disagreement, representatives of those interests (referred to as stakeholders) reached a consensus last year for how that water should be managed from the Highland Lakes on down. After further tweaks, the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) approved that Water Management Plan early this year.
Most stakeholders felt short-changed by the final Water Management Plan. But at the time of the LCRA‘s vote, many seemed relieved, at least, that a plan was finally complete.
Then, late last month, a letter arrived at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) that could throw everything back into question. That letter includes greivences from downstream rice farmers over how the plan was developed, and changes they would like to see.
Opponents are calling it a “rice farmer manifesto,” but Ed McCarthy, a lawyer representing Lower Colorado rice farmers, describes it differently.
“The rice farmers [...] have tried to highlight for TCEQ staff, where the problems are. Where the plan diverges from where there was consensus, identify the problem and identify a solution,” McCarthy told StateImpact Texas.
McCarthy says rice farmers don’t want the TCEQ, the state agency with final authority over the plan, to scrap the it completely. Instead they want the commission to change elements of the plan according to their suggestions.
But there’s a sticking point. The rice farmers suggestions include revamping one of the single most contentious aspects of the water plan: what lake levels would trigger water to be cut off to the rice farmers.
“The [water diversion] caps that were ultimately adopted were higher than what was necessary, and they do put an artificial restriction that prevents the rice farmers from farming more frequently than they need to be to meet the goals,” said McCarthy.
The notion that water should be allowed downstream even at lower levels than proposed is opposed by many water customers and residents upstream. Anger seems especially acute on the part of some, because those stakeholders believed they had already reached a compromise agreement.
“The rice farmers did not honor their word,” Jo Karr Tedder, President of the Central Texas Water Coalition, said in an interview with StateImpact Texas.
The Coalition is a group that represents highland lake residents and businesses. She says she was surprised by the letter, because she thought all stakeholders had arrived at an agreement. Now her group is organizing a petition and raising funds in case the water plan has to be re-fought before the TCEQ.
Tedder says she’s confident the proposed plan will prevail, in part because it goes to the TCEQ with the approval of the Lower Colorado River Authority. But she worries what a protracted fight could mean for the lakes, especially with lake levels hovering around only 50 percent full.
“It needs to be passed and it needs to be passed quickly,” said Tedder.
McCarthy denies that the rice farmers have backtracked.
He says rice farmers have brought their concerns to the TCEQ because the agency’s review of the plan marked the next opportunity for rice farmers to offer their opinion.
In the most extreme scenario, rice famers may officially contest the Water Management Proposal. That could lead to an administrative law hearing, and further extend the process of creating a new plan for the Lower Colorado River.
Here’s a copy of McCarthy’s letter to the TCEQ: