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LCRA looks to secure 100,000 new acre feet of water for region

Thursday, January 19, 2012 by Michael Kanin

Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) General Manager Becky Motal told the organization’s board of directors on Wednesday that LCRA staff will begin the hunt for “at least” 100,000 additional acre feet of water. The LCRA currently holds the rights to roughly 2.1 million acre feet a year. The additional supply would be enough to service between 400,000 and 500,000 people.


Motal told the board that she expects to acquire the 100,000 new acre feet by 2017. “We’ve been listening to the community, we’ve been listening to the board,” she said. “We’re going to continue over the next several months to bring potential real projects so that we can be assured that, in five years…that we in fact have developed new supplies for this basin.”


The news came as LCRA board members and citizens who live in the Highland Lakes region continued to question the impact of water releases for rice farming in southeast Texas. Board members wondered what the fiscal impact of a year without those sales might be. Highland Lakes residents, who had shown up in the hopes of discussing a new Water Management Plan for the region, wanted to drive home the message that it wasn’t just the livelihoods of rice farmers that was at stake.


“(The new plan) didn’t get anywhere near what we felt we needed to get done,” said the Central Texas Water Coalition’s David Lindsay. “But it was a major first step and there were some new concepts.”


The Central Texas Water Coalition is a group of Highland Lakes residents who are concerned that the LCRA’s water policies could dry up the region. They compromised with representatives of the agricultural community in discussions that ultimately resulted in largely consensus support for the new plan.


The LCRA board was initially scheduled to take action on the new water management plan at Wednesday’s meeting. That item was postponed, much to the disappointment of Lindsay and his colleagues. “The board voted, and directed staff, to have this plan ready to go today,” he said. “That was what we all planned. We’d been looking forward to this day, and all the sudden staff has said they weren’t quite ready.”


The board may is now scheduled to take action on the water management plan at its Feb. 22 meeting. The LCRA will take public comment on the subject in the interim. Board chair Tim Timmerman told a group of about 20 activists, who had donned red ‘911’ stickers to draw attention to what they consider to be an emergency, that the board would also hear their concerns at that meeting.


The new plan, which would come only a year and a half after the organization finally implemented the current version, will account for the projected increase of demand from the utility’s municipal or firm water customers, “intense” drought situations, and new science related to water flow in bay and estuary regions. It must be approved by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) before it can be implemented (See In Fact Daily, Oct. 20, 2011).


LCRA staff received authorization from the TCEQ to make emergency alterations to its current water management plan last fall. As such, LCRA officials have the power to curtail the distribution of water to their interruptible southeastern Texas agricultural customers if – as is expected – water levels in the Highland Lakes drop below previous record levels. The utility has never before had to resort to such action.


With agricultural curtailment a near certainty, LCRA board members wondered about the fiscal impact to the organization. “We will have…by next month…the impact of what we forecast to be the shortfall in water rates,” said Motal.


In his fiscal year 2012 financial forecast, LCRA Treasurer Jim Travis writes that LCRA staff expects total water revenue to be $15 million lower than expected – a difference of roughly 15 percent. Travis explained to the board that much of this figure  was thanks to the organization’s ongoing effort to sell off its water utilities. However, Travis adds that the LCRA stands to lose $4 million “due to the projected curtailment of interruptible water.”

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