Even With LCRA Emergency Plan, Highland Lakes May Reach Historic Lows

Graphic by Todd Wiseman/Texas Tribune

Receding waters have ravaged communities in the Highland Lakes.

Update: The LCRA Board approved the emergency plan with some last-minute tweaks on Wednesday. Read the details here.

Original Story: The LCRA’s plan for emergency drought relief revealed Monday at a board meeting in Fredricksberg has left many upstream interests with a bad taste in their mouths.

The plan is itself a change from an earlier LCRA staff recommendation to not seek drought relief this year. That reversal had buoyed hopes in many Central Texas communities that water would stay in the Highland Lakes as long as they sat depleted from last year’s record drought.  But as details of the plan emerged, it became clear that Highland Lake interests had not gotten the plan they wanted.

The lakes are currently only 43 percent full. Under the staff plan unveiled Tuesday, around 145,000 acre feet of water will be released to rice farmers downstream on January 1, as long as the lakes sit around 38 percent full on January first. A second water release could be approved in March if water levels remain at or above that 38 percent level.

Releasing that water could bring the lakes down to about 600,000 acre feet in total storage (about 30 percent full). That would have serious consequences for all users of Colorado River water. And that’s according to the LCRA itself. If the lakes drop to that level, it would end up:

“Triggering a Board declaration under the Water Management Plan of drought worse than Drought of Record conditions, and triggering a cutoff of releases of stored water supply to interruptible customers, and a reduction in water available to firm customers, including cities, industries and power plants.”

That sparked an flurry of tweets Tuesday evening as the plan was being discussed, many of them from the Hill Country Alliance, a group opposed to the water releases.

The Alliance wanted the new plan to assure that no water would be let downstream as long as the lakes contained 850,000 acre feet or less of water. The plan proposed this week puts that cut-off point at 750,000 acre feet, meaning the lakes could be significantly lower than they are now, and still lose water to the downstream releases.

Despite the criticisms, the new plan would allow less water downstream to rice farmers than if the LCRA did nothing. In October, an LCRA spokesperson estimated the amount that would be released if there was no emergency plan at about 183,000 acre feet. It would also ensure that no water is released if the lakes drop the additional acre feet to reach the cutoff point.

Last year, the emergency drought plant had a cut-off point of 850,000 acre feet. It was the first year in history that rice farmers did not receive water from the lakes.

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