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LCRA board hears testimony on plan to suspend water flow for agriculture

Wednesday, September 21, 2011 by Michael Kanin

Representatives from both sides of a debate about whether the Lower Colorado River Authority should seek permission to suspend water flow to downstream farmers huddled with staff on Tuesday evening. The discussion was a last minute attempt to reach some sort of compromise on the issue in advance of a board decision that could come as early as this morning.


The parties began talking with staff just minutes after LCRA Water Operations Committee Chair Scott Spears gaveled that body’s monthly meeting to a close. There, rice farmers and their upstream counterparts tried their best to sell a divided board on their respective arguments. After board vet John Dickerson suggested that rice farmers have a chance to communicate directly with LCRA staff, former Pflugerville mayor and new board member John Franklin stepped in to make sure that firm customers have the same opportunity.


LCRA affiliates with set contracts – known as “firm” water customers – argue that the continued sale of Colorado River water to the farmers downstream is an unfair drain on a precious resource, and should be discontinued until the drought passes. The farmers, whose water deals are interruptible, insist that any cessation of the flow would permanently destroy their livelihoods.


LCRA staff recommended that the board pursue one of four options. Chief among these was a call for the organization to submit a petition to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) for the right to suspend the delivery of water to downstream agriculture.


LCRA Integrated Resource Planning Executive Manager Suzanne Zarling recommended that, should the board decide to interrupt downstream flow, it adopt an approach that employs both water level triggers and weather forecasts in a calculation that would determine when to stop the flow.


Dickerson, who’s from the Matagorda region, told the rest of the board that his family had farmed rice. “I think we should continue working with our interruptible customers. I think we’re moving drastically on this measure. I think the proposals aren’t flexible enough to try to work out a solution with our interruptible customers,” he added.


Austin Water Utility Director Greg Meszaros came to represent, as he put it, the LCRA’s “largest firm water customer.” He immediately began calling on that muscle.


“. . .  Austin Water supplies water every day to over one million people. We provide water to some of the most important institutions in the State of Texas—the State Capitol, the University of Texas. We supply water to companies that provide jobs to hundreds of thousands of Texans,” he said. “They rely on a reliable water supply…not just a reliable water supply for the next three months or the next six months, but for many years into the future.”


Meszaros added that the utility supports LCRA staff recommendation to suspend water supplies to its agricultural customers.


The LCRA board is set to decide today whether or not to seek the emergency permit from TCEQ.

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