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Closed-door session results in LCRA water contract policy change

Thursday, November 19, 2009 by Charles Boisseau

Earlier this week, Lower Colorado River Authority board members discussed a staff recommendation that would suspend all new water contracts until the depleted Highland Lakes return to more normal elevations.

 

That was Tuesday afternoon.

 

By Wednesday morning, the proposal board members were being asked to vote on was less stringent — one apparently discussed in a closed-door executive session on Tuesday with General Manager Tom Mason and selected key staff members—that leaves the door open to new contracts that will be judged by the board on a case-by-case basis.

 

This changed item was a key element of a package of drought-response actions LCRA’s board unanimously approved on Wednesday. The approved resolution will also:

 

  • Allow LCRA to deny water to rice farmers – who each year obtain one-year “interruptible” water contracts — for the first time ever in 2010. This option would cut off water to farmers for a “second crop” they customarily grow each year. This action has generated much attention given that rice farmers collectively represent LCRA’s largest water customer – with rice farmers near the Gulf Coast using about 60 percent of the water LCRA provides each year. However, this action may not happen if anticipated upcoming wet weather patterns lift the lakes to normal levels in the next couple of months.

  • Allow LCRA’s municipal water customers to lift mandatory water-conservation measures that LCRA asked them to implement during the dog days of summer, when the region suffered soaring temperatures and dry weather that sent lakes Travis and Buchanan to near-record lows.

  • Provide LCRA increased flexibility to manage water supplies by seeking temporary state approval to use river water downstream — so called “run-of-the-river” water – instead of water stored in the Highland Lakes to supply some industrial, irrigation, and municipal customers.

But the change in how LCRA will handle new water contracts generated the most buzz on Wednesday.

 

Under the earlier plan, LCRA would have put up an across-the-board temporary ban on new contracts for long-term “firm” water contracts – ones required by municipalities and new residential developments for drinking water. That suspension would have remained until the elevation of the Highland Lakes increased to 1.4 million acre-feet; currently the lakes are just above 1 million acre-feet.

 

While this change was little-discussed in the open meeting, board members approached afterwards said they decided to step back from the outright ban in part because of improving conditions, as rains in the past two months have partially replenished the lakes, increasing the combined storage of lakes Buchanan and Travis roughly 20 percent.

 

Board members said they instead wanted to reserve the right to approve new water contracts if they decide there is enough stored water available in the Highland Lakes. Under current LCRA rules, staff members can approve water contracts for 500 acre-feet of water a year; now all those contracts need board approval.

 

Several LCRA board members said the change in direction was decided on during Tuesday’s executive session. Who suggested the change? What was said in executive session? It’s difficult to say, since the meeting was off-limits to everyone except board members and some staff members.

 

“It just kind of came up” in discussion, said Vernon “Buddy” Schrader, board member from Llano County. “It (a ban) obviously impacts so many people – developers – that can really throw a complication in the process to get water.”

 

Llano County is the home of two of the three pending firm-water contracts LCRA will address at next month’s meeting; existing firm-water customers Kingsland Water Supply Corp. and the City of Horseshoe Bay, two fast-growing communities, both want more water under their existing contracts. Kingsland wants to increase its contracted amount to 850 acre-feet a year, up from 500; Horseshoe Bay wants to nearly double its water to 3,461.7 acre-feet a year. (A third pending applicant for water, White Stallion Energy Center, has requested 22,000 acre-feet of water a year for a proposed pet coke electricity plant in Matagorda County. However, it is unlikely to require water soon because it faces steep regulatory hurdles before it obtains its required state air permit.)

 

Asked about the change, Steve K. Balas, board member from Colorado County, said: “We feel we can give that more time,” meaning the decision not to impose an outright ban on new contracts. “We don’t need to do that right now.”

 

Board members said they know their decision to approve any new water contracts could put more pressure on them.

 

“We put it in our own laps,” said Timothy Timmerman, board member from Travis County. He anticipates that the board will face some decisions in the months ahead over whether to approve new contracts. “We’ll see some” new contracts, he predicted.

 

Suzanne Zarling, executive manager of water services for LCRA, declined to discuss how the change to the language in the resolution was made. She indicated she could not discuss what happened in the executive session.

 

“All I can tell you is staff made the proposal [on Wednesday] to give the board flexibility,” she said.

 

According to the Texas Municipal League, The Texas Open Meetings Act requires that every regular, special, or called meeting of a governmental body, including city councils and most boards and commissions (depending on membership and authority), must be open to the public. The TML says, “There are seven exceptions that allow for closed meetings, also known as ‘executive sessions.’ Those exceptions concern: (1) the purchase or lease of real property; (2) security measures; (3) the receipt of gifts; (4) consultation with attorney; (5) personnel matters; (6) economic development; and (7) certain homeland security matters. Before going into executive session, all governmental bodies must first convene in open session, identify which issues will be discussed in executive session, and cite the time and applicable exception. All final actions, decisions, or votes must be made in an open meeting.”

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