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Over downstream objections, LCRA approves new water management plan

Thursday, February 23, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

Despite a last-minute attempt to derail the process by downstream agricultural interests, the Lower Colorado River Authority Board of Directors on Wednesday approved a new water management plan for the Highland Lakes.


The majority of the board opted to stick with the unamended plan, emphasizing a need to move forward quickly, and expressing concern that last-minute changes proposed by Director J. Scott Arbuckle might have undermined the lengthy stakeholder process that developed the plan over the past 18 months.


The LCRA board voted 10-5 to adopt the plan with Chair Tim Timmerman, and Directors Franklin Scott Spears, Rebecca Klein, John Franklin, Raymond Gill, Jett Johnson, Sandra Kibby, Thomas Martine, Michael McHenry, and Vernon Schrader in favor. Directors representing customers downstream of Austin voted against the plan. They included Directors Arbuckle, Lori Berger, Steve Balas, John Dickerson, and Secretary Kathleen White voted against the plan.


Spears said the proposed amendments were “way too numerous. As water operations chair, I know that this plan was originally presented at the October work meeting. And to say that it’s been rushed is a mischaracterization,” said Spears.


“To me, being presented with this at the eleventh hour, it’s not fair… I disagree with how this was done,” said Spears, who stated that he would “continue to work tirelessly to get as much new water for our downstream neighbors as humanly possible.”


Arbuckle took issue with the idea that his changes were last-minute. “These amendments that I’ve added here today are not a surprise to this board… The board got these on Monday,” said Arbuckle, who was greeted by derisive laughter from the crowd. Monday was a federal holiday.


White supported the amendments, ultimately voting against the plan.


“I have trouble with this plan, because I think it weakens and perhaps conflicts with our enabling legislation, and some of the key orders that TCEQ has issued, as well as the historic 1988 adjudication of LCRA’s water rights. I think it is a shift, one might say a subtle shift, but a shift towards not managing the lakes as storage reservoirs, but towards constant lake levels. And I recognize very, very much the magnitude of economic interests you all have at stake, but I think the solution to those might necessarily require a legislative change,” said White.


“I understand LCRA’s fundamental obligation to serve our customers. And we have two classes: firm and interruptible.” said White.


County Commissioner Karen Huber, whose district surrounds Lake Travis, told In Fact Daily she was pleased the plan was moving forward.


“We have work to do beyond this… We are looking at doubling our population, and if you look at the state water plan, and the needs that it addresses, this is only one small piece,” said Huber. “Is it perfect? No. Is it good? Yes. But we need to shift the way that we look at our priorities… Like the economic impacts. LCRA are not really allowed to address those. We need to talk to the legislature about that. We need to understand what they are so that we can make better decisions up and down the basin.”


The new plan is the result of an 18 month long stakeholder process, and has many changes from the LCRA’s current water-management plan.


Notably, the plan eliminates “open supply,” which allows downstream agricultural customers unlimited water from Highland Lakes when they are above a certain point. The new plan stipulates upper limits at all times.


The plan also puts in place two trigger points to determine how much water is available for agriculture, one on Jan. 1 and one on June 1. Currently, agricultural water supply is only determined by a Jan. 1 trigger point.


Under the new plan, firm water customers such as the City of Austin, will not be asked to reduce water use until interruptible water from the Highland Lakes that is used in agriculture is also restricted.


Prior to passing the water management plan, the board unanimously adopted a resolution to find at least 100,000 acre-feet of water in the next five years.


“This is a critical time in LCRA history. We have never been at this juncture before. We have always had enough water to serve all interests within the basin, and I’m sad to say we don’t today,” said Timmerman. “We must take care of our lower basin also, and I think the key to this is to start the process of developing new water supplies now.”


The water management plan next heads to TCEQ.

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