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Last-minute meeting produces agreement on interruptible LCRA water

Thursday, September 22, 2011 by Michael Kanin

On Wednesday, the board of directors for the Lower Colorado River Authority unanimously approved a resolution that authorizes LCRA staff to seek emergency powers to disrupt the flow of water to southeast Texas agriculture. The board’s action came as the result of an agreement reached Tuesday night by representatives of Highland Lakes area municipalities –including the City of Austin – and downstream farmers, whose supply is considered interruptible.


The deal, brokered by staff, delineates clear decision points for the LCRA in the face of a lingering drought. It also sets up a larger debate about the future of how the utility addresses competing water needs.


“I encourage you to use the emergency drought modification not as a band-aid for this one time, but to use it as a solution to the problems that will be ongoing,” suggested Jo Karr Tedder of the Central Texas Water Coalition, which advocates for Highland Lakes users and businesses.


The LCRA board put off action on a new Water Management Plan in favor of the decision about drought remediation. The plan will attempt to address supply issues similar to those discussed in conjunction with the emergency action. During that discussion, agricultural interests seem set to push for storage reservoirs downstream. The board is now scheduled to consider the plan at its October meeting.


The LCRA will now file an application to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for the right to deviate from its current Water Management Plan. In that document, LCRA staff will propose a halt to interruptible supplies if the stored water in Lakes Travis and Buchanan is below 850,000 acre feet of water on March 1. If lake storage is between 850,000 and 920,000 acre feet on March 1, farmers would get 125,000 acre feet.


Combined storage in the lakes would have to be above 920,000 acre feet for the board to return to the standard guidelines outlined in the 2010 Water Management Plan. In that case, the board would be left to determine an amount using that document.


The plan means that if water is available for farmers, it would only available for the first crop of the season (a second crop would be subject to LCRA Board approval); pumping would not begin before April 1 and would last no longer than 145 days or until 125,000 acre-feet is pumped.


Representatives of firm water contract holders—municipalities that rely on Colorado River water stored in the highland lakes to serve household uses—and the rice farmers who use the water to irrigate their fields met Tuesday starting at about 5:30pm (See In Fact Daily, Sept. 21, 2011). After roughly three hours, the parties produced an agreement that was amenable enough to pass along for board approval on Wednesday morning.


Assistant Austin City Attorney Ross Crow spends much of his time working on water issues for the city. He told the board that the Austin Water Utility approved of the arrangement. “I think we had a very good outcome,” Crow said. “Going into that meeting I couldn’t say that I was that optimistic, but I think everyone worked very hard to come together.”

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