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Continuing drought brings out water discussions in Travis County

Wednesday, October 26, 2011 by Michael Kanin

Last week, Texas Speaker of the House Joe Strauss (R-San Antonio) released his list of interim committee charges – topics for House committees to take up before the next session – including “finding ways to address…our water challenges” as one of his top priorities.


While attempting to deal with the state’s water woes is nothing new at the Legislature, the less-abstract problems of a severe drought have become a major topic of discussion at the local level here in Travis County.


Pct. 3 Commissioner Karen Huber is circulating an economic impact study that aims to quantify the short-term fiscal effect that the 2011 drought brings to the Lake Travis area.


Huber told In Fact Daily Tuesday she believes the timing of the study, along with efforts by citizens’ groups, contributed to the recent passage of the Lower Colorado River Authority’s (LCRA) Water Management Plan.


“That’s speculative,” she said. “But they had been dragging their feet on taking action (on) our report.” At the same time, she said they made it clear that they were not going away. “That, combined with the drought, (gave them) no choice but to move forward.”


In the study, county consultants Robert Charles Lesser and Company find significant fiscal impacts that they trace to the onset of lower lake levels (See In Fact Daily, Sept. 30, 2011). These include conclusions that the area could see revenue figures fall off by as much as $21.9 million a year, should the condition persist.


On Tuesday, Huber introduced another element of concern when she pointed out that Travis County collects roughly $32 million in taxes from the Lake Travis area. “If we end up with consistently lower water levels, the impact on our own revenues could become significant.”


LCRA spokeswoman Clara Tuma responded to the Lake Travis report by pointing to the drought’s affect on the entire basin. “When you tell us this drought is terrible, you are preaching to the choir,” she wrote via email. “This drought is catastrophic for almost everyone up and down the lower Colorado River.”


For the LCRA, that includes agricultural customers. “We understand the economics that come with lower lake levels, and we know that businesses and tourism are suffering, as are farmers who face the very real possibility there will be no water available for downstream rice irrigation next year,” Tuma continued.


The LCRA passed its Water Management Plan last week after some contention (See In Fact Daily, October 20, 2011). With that action, LCRA customers—including the City of Austin—could see something of a shift toward the potential curtailment of water sales to agricultural customers in the southeastern portion of the state.


Such a shift could bring more water to the chain of manmade lakes that hold much of Central Texas’ water supply—and, argues the study, support thousands of jobs.


Huber noted that the state could benefit from more studies like the Lake Travis effort. “If we had more tools like the one that we just created in the report from other areas of the state as well, then we can put dollar amounts on costs and needs and losses,” she said.


She pivoted back to the controversial water sales to downstream agriculture. “We don’t just have to anecdotally say, ‘Well, we shouldn’t be sending water out of basin because we can’t afford to,’” Huber suggested. “We can put a dollar amount on it and understand that impact.”


The commissioner then returned to a theme she’s touched on when she’s previously discussed the study in public. “We need a statewide water management plan that’s effective across the state,” she said.

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