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Central Texans, rice producers square off over proposed LCRA water plan

Wednesday, February 22, 2012 by Michael Kanin

Continuing tensions between downstream rice producers and Central Texans who depend on the Highland Lakes for water and income took center stage at the Lower Colorado River Authority‘s Water Operations subcommittee on Tuesday. The two sides argued over whether proposed late staff revisions to the LCRA’s proposed water management plan were beneficial.


Hill Country officials insisted that the revisions – technical changes that affect the terms under which water is distributed throughout the Colorado basin – would ultimately harm their interests. They also objected to the fact that the changes were made via input received after the formal completion of a stakeholder process, an eventuality that they argue left them with little room to dispute the new language. Representatives of the agricultural region maintain that the plan doesn’t quite go far enough and that the revisions offer some additional protection to their interests.


The LCRA’s board of directors may vote on the issue today. If one or more of the parties are dissatisfied with the outcome, they could challenge it before the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Either way, Burnet County Judge Donna Klaeger—who spoke against the revisions—wants a resolution. “The changes, as I understand them, are very long term—out to 2020, most of them,” she told In Fact Daily. “The goal is not to ever get to that point without having another plan. I support that the plan be voted on.”


Klaeger added that a version of the new plan would be “better than what we have now.” She further noted that she is “concerned that maybe all of the changes are there to make sure that it’s not passed.”


The water management plan will inform LCRA water policy across its jurisdiction. Among other highlights, it will dictate the conditions under which rice farmers can expect to receive water from Lakes Travis and Buchanan to irrigate their crops. This point has been a matter of contention. Recent intense drought conditions throughout the region have added a point to the discussion.


In October, the LCRA board gave staff the okay to move forward with the construction of a plan, after an evening of negotiation that seemed to end in a broad compromise between the parties (See In Fact Daily, Oct. 20, 2012). The utility continued to collect public input on the matter. Earlier this month, LCRA staff unveiled an updated version of the plan that included revisions based on that input.


Austin Water Utility Director Greg Meszaros spoke against the revisions. After the hearing he singled out one of what he called “several” examples to illustrate his objections. “The concept of open supply,” he told In Fact Daily. “(That) means that, at certain lake levels, interruptible (agricultural) customers can consume as much water as they need.”


“Our lesson from 2011 is very clear,” he said. “At the beginning of 2011 the lakes were nearly full and, as a result, open supply was in effect and (agriculture) used about three times our annual supply of water. It’s our belief that interruptibles should be interrupted, particularly in dry years like 2011.”


Highland Lakes customers believed that the new water management plan would put an end to open supply. The proposed amendments to the new draft leave the potential for the practice in place.


Meszaros noted that, should the LCRA approve the plan with the revisions, the City of Austin could challenge that outcome. “Depending on the final output of the LCRA’s deliberations, we’ll obviously huddle up internally and talk about what they passed on to TCEQ and what additional actions the city may need to take to protect its interests,” he said.


Staffers from the offices of several Texas legislators, including senators Kirk Watson (D-Austin) and Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay), took in the proceedings. Watson legislative counsel Susan Nold read from a letter the senator penned Tuesday. “The water management plan before you is not identical to the consensus plan reached through the stakeholder process, and most likely, it is not what any individual stakeholder or board member would want if given a chance to get everything one wanted,” Watson wrote. “That said, the plan before you is a document that represents what many of them can accept, and more importantly, it represents a step forward for the sound management of a limited supply of water. For these reasons, I encourage you to support its adoption.”


In closing, Watson noted that he and his colleagues were watching. “The legislature is focused on the water shortages facing all Texans, and I look forward to continuing to work together to protect and fight for the future of Texas,” he wrote.

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