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Competing LCRA water users argue for maintaining their supplies

Wednesday, November 11, 2009 by Charles Boisseau

At a special public meeting on Tuesday, competing water users gathered before the board members of the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) to argue their cases at a time when the river authority is considering unprecedented suspensions of water supplies in the coming year.


LCRA staff is recommending that its 15-member board approve several drought-management actions to better conserve water in the Highland Lakes, including temporarily suspending new water contracts and possibly cutting back on the water available for agricultural customers, primarily rice farmers in the lower Colorado River basin.


The lines were clearly drawn during the meeting, with agricultural users on one side and municipalities on the other, as nearly a dozen key water users and representatives of cities and public-interest groups spoke during the two-hour meeting.


If water is being curtailed, municipalities, which have “firm” water contracts for water from LCRA, want to make sure they are given priority over agricultural users, who have “interruptible” water supplies. Rice farmers say they have contractual rights to their water, and a severe cutback could cripple the economies of three counties in the lower Colorado River basin: Colorado, Wharton, and Matagorda.


Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who began his remarks by reminding LCRA board members that Austin is LCRA’s largest “firm” water customer and that the city paid $100 million in 1999 to reserve its long-term raw water supplies from LCRA, said the city was concerned that LCRA was hamstrung by operating under a 10-year-old water management plan that doesn’t take into consideration dry conditions in recent years and the increasing demands for water in the region.


LCRA officials said its proposed actions are in response to a serious drought that has rivaled the worst the region has ever suffered, which took place during the 1950s.


Leffingwell noted that Austin was doing its part to conserve water, having implemented its “stage 2” drought contingency plan earlier this year and stepped up enforcement of restrictions on outdoor watering. He said the city has ticketed 270 people for violating its water conservation rules, with average fines of $400 per ticket.


In general, Leffingwell said he supported LCRA plans to suspend new water contracts and limit water for agricultural users until levels of the Highland Lakes improve. He said the city has concerns over some elements of the plan, for example how LCRA might use so-called “run of the river” rights.


Other municipal water users said they were concerned about the proposed suspension of new water contracts for municipal and industrial users.


Earl Foster, general manager of the Kingsland Water Supply Corp., which has 3,200 water connections in Llano and Burnet counties, questioned the plan to suspend new water contracts until Lakes Buchanan and Travis return to more normal levels. Foster said Kingsland WSC, which applied in August to increase its water usage under its existing water contract to accommodate area growth, has not heard how a possible suspension on water contracts would impact its needs. A suspension on new water contracts raises issues such as whether their contract is a “renewal” or a “new contract” and how much LCRA will charge if Kingsland takes more water than allocated in its contract.


Moreover, he argued that LCRA should favor municipalities with “firm” water supply contracts over agricultural users, who collectively receive more than 60 percent of the water allocated by LCRA and possess “interruptible” contracts. If LCRA suspends new municipal water contracts and yet continues to provide agricultural users their water in the coming year, “it will send a message that irrigation takes precedence over public consumption,” Foster said.


For their part, rice farmers said they are concerned about the staff plan, which could cut their water supplies 15 to 25 percent for their first crop in 2010 and then possibly cut off water for a second crop that they typically plant. These actions would be triggered by the level of the Highland Lakes early next year, under the LCRA plan.


Haskell Simon, a rice farmer from Matagorda County, said rice farmers disagree with LCRA’s interpretation of its state-approved plan, which stipulates how LCRA manages the basin’s water supplies. LCRA officials say a new Water Management Plan that is pending approval by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality would give them additional authority to cut back water for rice farmers based on the level of the Highland Lakes.

LCRA officials say that the more than two-year drought has highlighted shortcomings in the Water Management Plan. While the drought has been lessened by heavy rains in the past two months, lake levels remain below normal and have not recovered from a shortfall of water coming into the lakes, a water “inflow deficit” that LCRA officials say rivals the so-called Drought of Record during the 1950s upon which it bases its water management planning.

Ronald Gertson, a rice farmer whose family has raised rice for 99 years in Wharton County, said he and other rice farmers have invested heavily in leveling fields and other conservation measures but there was no opportunity for them to benefit from these efforts, especially if water for irrigation is curtailed.


Others at the meeting included representatives of the Sierra Club and Public Citizen, who said they favor the proposed suspension of new water contracts.


Ryan Rittenhouse of Public Citizen said LCRA’s board should consider changing its priorities to limit water to new power plants, such as the planned expansion of the South Texas Nuclear Plant and White Stallion Energy Center, a proposed power plant near Bay City that would be fueled by “pet coke” and coal. Both of these facilities would require massive amounts of water. LCRA should avoid providing water to these industrial facilities because there are alternative energy sources — wind, solar, and other renewable energy sources – that don’t require water, while people and crops require water, Rittenhouse said.


LCRA’s board may decide whether to adopt the staff recommendations at its next regular meeting, scheduled Nov. 18.


“This is a dynamic process,” LCRA General Manager Tom Mason said, summing up the meeting for LCRA directors about how LCRA is struggling to manage competing interests for limited water supplies. “Some things will not change – it will always be controversial and it will never be easy.”


Mason told the board members that the solution to the water supply problems was for LCRA to develop new supplies. He noted that in July LCRA staff provided the board with a long-range water supply resource plan that highlighted several options for increasing water supplies, including building a new water supply reservoir and a supply pipeline to Travis County, building a desalination plant near the Gulf Coast, more extensive water conservation efforts and programs for the reuse of wastewater effluent.


Tuesday’s meeting came after LCRA warned its municipal and industrial water customers on Oct. 26 that it was considering recommending a temporary suspension on new municipal and industrial water contracts.


As of Tuesday, LCRA said the region’s water supply reservoirs were about 52 percent full. These reservoirs dropped to about 39 percent full before rains in September and October.


LCRA also said that during a 20-month period of intense drought, the Highland Lakes accumulated an inflow deficit (the amount of water flowing into the Highland Lakes as compared to a similar period during the Drought of Record) of nearly 400,000 acre-feet by early September. The deficit is less today, about 267,000 acre-feet, but has not been erased despite above-normal rainfall.

LCRA said that, if approved, the temporary suspension of new water contracts would ensure that firm water customers, such as the city of Austin, can count on receiving the water they have planned to get. LCRA said the suspension of new water contracts would stay in place until the combined level of the lakes Buchanan and Travis reach 1.4 million acre feet. As of Tuesday the lakes stood at 1.04 million acre-feet. An acre foot is the amount of water it takes to cover an acre of land with one feet of water; it is equal to about 326,000 gallons, or more than enough water for a family of four for a year.

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