Mark Dewey of KUT News contributed reporting.
Two high-profile Texas legislators have put the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) on notice this week: if you send water downstream to rice farmers in 2013, there will be consequences. In a letter to the LCRA, Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Troy Fraser, R-Abilene, urge the LCRA to withdraw the emergency water management plan passed in November. That plan, if approved and followed, would likely result in water being sent down the Lower Colorado to grow rice. Even though it would be a smaller amount than usual, opponents of the plan fear it could be enough to send the Highland Lakes down to drought of record levels.
“We appreciate the letter and understand the concerns expressed by the senators,” the LCRA says in an emailed statement. Acknowledging the extremely dry conditions and low inflows into the lake, the authority says that it is “continuing to closely monitor the situation” and may seek a different emergency drought plan when it meets next month that could result in rice farmers’ water being cut off.
“With the drought we’re in we’ve had increased usage from the population growth and industrial usage, and when you’re in a drought there’s just not enough water to take care of everyone’s needs,” Fraser tells KUT News. “I’m telling LCRA they’re required by law to interrupt the water going to agriculture users to make sure they’re taking care of the public.”
The Austin American-Statesman reports that the two state senators are threatening to “pursue legislation that prohibits such decisions in the future and would actively support court action to stop the river authority.”
There is a long history of conflict over the water trapped by two major Central Texas reservoirs. Rice farmers downstream maintain that the water stored in the Highland Lakes belongs to them, while businesses and residents around the lake say the rice farmers pay too little for water ($6 per acre-foot compared with $151 per acre-foot for municipal users) and use a tremendous amount of it on a crop no longer meant for South Texas. Another voice in the mix is the City of Austin’s, which pays a premium for firm contracts of water supply and uses less water than the rice farmers typically do.
In the new letter, Fraser and Waston recommend that the LCRA adopt its emergency plan used this past year, which is less likely to send water down to rice farmers if the region suffers a dry winter. That emergency plan resulted in rice farmers being cut off from Highland Lakes water for the first time in history.
The last public boat ramp on Lake Travis, one of the two major Highland Lakes, closed earlier this month because of low lake levels. And the community of Spicewood Beach along the upper end of Lake Travis is still without a fully functioning water well because of low lake levels.
You can read the letter in full below: