In a unanimous vote today, the Board of Directors at the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) approved an emergency plan that could cut off water for most rice farmers downstream in order to protect supplies for the City of Austin. The plan is identical to the one that last year resulted in rice farmers being cut off for the first time in history.
The Highland Lakes of Buchanan and Travis, vital reservoirs for Central Texas, have suffered from record low inflows in recent years, beginning in 2006. They’re currently only 41 percent full. If they don’t rise to the level of 42 percent full by midnight March 1, water will not go downstream to most rice farmers this year.
Ronald Gertson, a rice farmer in Wharton County, testified that another year without water could be catastrophic for rice farmers.
“A curtailment of water supply in 2012 and again in 2013 will result in significant economic and social suffering in the three downstream counties,” he said. “The repercussions of back-to-back years without surface irrigation water will be devastating.”
Representing the City of Austin was Director of Austin Water Greg Meszaros. “We are supportive of this,” he said. “We think that this is protective of firm water supplies and duplicates very closely the 2011 emergency order that worked to preserve water through the last year.”
The new plan was a notable reversal from the emergency plan sought by the LCRA in November 2012, which would have likely sent water to rice farmers this year. After sustained vocal opposition by state senators Troy Fraser and Kirk Watson, as well as the City of Austin, the LCRA said it would consider the new plan they voted in today.
According to an LCRA press release these are the particulars of the plan approved today, which are nearly identical to the emergency plan in place last year:
- Provide no stored water to farmers in Gulf Coast and Lakeside irrigation divisions if the combined storage is below 850,000 acre-feet;
- Provide up to 121,500 acre-feet of stored water for irrigation if the combined storage is between 850,000 acre-feet and 920,000 acre-feet on March 1; or
- Provide stored water in accordance with the current Water Management Plan if the combined storage is at or above 920,000 acre-feet on March 1.
To achieve storage levels of 850,000 acre feet, Becky Motal, general manager of the LCRA, said Central Texas will need prolific rainfall. She said that the lakes are about 30,000 acre feet short of the level needed for a release right now. It will take multiple deluges of several inches in places that feed directly into the Highland Lakes in order to fill the lakes to 42 percent, she said.
The rice farmers might not be the only Texans using less water from the Highland Lakes. A few LCRA board members indicated they were in favor of tightening restrictions on Central Texas water users, including firm water customers like the City of Austin and surrounding areas.
LCRA board chairman Timothy Timmerman indicated the LCRA would take measures to decrease water use by municipalities, something rice farmers and hunting groups have advocated. “I would highly suggest, that on March 1st of this year if we are not at 850,000 acre feet that … this board adopt additional drought measures to be responsible and try to protect our water supply,” he said.
General Manager Motal echoed Timmerman’s sentiment saying, “conservation is the right thing to do.” Specifics weren’t given.
In addition to possible water restriction in Central Texas, the LCRA has plans to build new storage reservoirs below Austin. Those “off-channel” reservoirs would shore up the rice farmers’ water supply and be funded through the state water plan, Ronald Gertsen, a rice farmer in Wharton County, said in a press release today.
Senators Fraser and Watson, who had lobbied strongly for the new plan, said in a statement today that they are “pleased” with the decision and that the new plan “will provide a safeguard so that an ongoing supply of water will be available in 2013 and beyond to its firm water customers.”
Because of previous agreements with the Garwood District, rice farmers there will likely receive water even if the lakes aren’t 42 percent full, like they did last year. They would be entitled to divert up to 20,000 acre-feet (or 6.5 billion gallons) of water from the Highland Lakes, according to the LCRA. But the LCRA says that they could end up using less in the event of heavy rain, which would allow them to divert more river water downstream from the lakes.