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Travis County seeks extension of drought declaration from LCRA

Wednesday, October 31, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

Citing continuing low levels of Lake Travis, the Travis County Commissioners Court on Tuesday formalized their support of another emergency drought declaration.


Commissioners unanimously passed a resolution urging the Lower Colorado River Authority to ask for a reauthorization of the emergency drought order that was implemented last year. The LCRA must submit a request to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to extend the existing order, which is set to expire at the end of December.


Precinct 3 Commissioner Karen Huber championed the resolution. She made it clear that she was representing her constituents surrounding Lake Travis, who are concerned that a release of water to the southern agricultural interests would jeopardize their businesses, drinking water and tourism and translate into lost revenue for them, the county and the state.


“If they chose not to do that this year, then we would be experiencing a significant impact on our available water supplies,” said Huber. “The drought has not turned around.”


Huber said that if the winter is dry and water is released to downstream interruptible customers, most notably rice farmers in coastal counties, firm water customers – such as those who depend on municipal water supplies – would probably face a 20 percent curtailment in usage. 


“This is a short-term hedge against a serious water-availability situation,” said Huber, who also highlighted the continued need for water conservation. “We shouldn’t be watering our yards if we are keeping water from our agricultural interests downstream. We need to get in sync up and down the basin on how we deal with this.”


Last year the LCRA interrupted service to its downstream customers – mostly rice farmers – for the first time. Huber explained that two weeks ago the LCRA staff recommended against a drought declaration for the coming year, despite conditions that are “very, very close to the same conditions that they had last year.”          


The declaration notes that the current level at Lake Travis is 634 feet, which is 47 feet below full. Huber said that last year Lake Travis was at 631 feet when the emergency drought order was declared. Lake Travis, operated by LCRA, is the region’s largest water supply reservoir.


“They did it last year. This year the concern is that (LCRA) staff has already asked that they not request it,” she said.


LCRA has yet to make a decision on the request, though the item is on the agenda for both its November Water Operations Committee meeting on Nov. 13 and the LCRA Board meeting on Nov. 14. (Both meetings will be held in Fredericksburg.)


“We’re always pleased to hear from commissioners,” said a spokesperson for the authority, who deferred comment to a statement made by LCRA General Manager Becky Motal last week.


In the statement, Motal emphasized that LCRA has yet to make a decision about whether to provide water for rice irrigation in 2013. Motal noted, as did Huber, that a forecast that predicted rain from El Niño this winter has been revised subsequent to the LCRA staff recommendation, and that plus the data that they are continuing to gather will weigh into their decision.


Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt joined her colleagues in voting in favor of the resolution.


“Even if a drought declaration requires an interruption or curtailment of interruptible (water users), that if circumstances change, it’s not going to be hard for TCEQ to make that water available to some serious heavy-hitter industrial customers. So, I don’t see any downside to supporting and encouraging them to ask for a similar declaration,” said Eckhardt.

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