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County plans online water supply forum

Thursday, November 15, 2012 by Michael Kanin

Travis County officials are having trouble putting together a water supply forum approved in concept by the county commissioners in September. So, they plan to turn to the Internet to collect input from county stakeholders interested in weighing in on regional water issues.


Travis County’s head of Transportation and Natural Resources Steve Manilla told commissioners Tuesday that his office’s inability to put together the forum may have been a result of the pending holiday season. “We could probably reach out further if we were to use a web-based mechanism to solicit these ideas,” Manilla said.


In the aftermath of a historic draught in 2011 – the most extreme one-year drought in recorded Central Texas history – Texas’ water supply has come more acutely into focus. This has manifested most notably in the ongoing dispute over whether the Lower Colorado River Authority should allow southeast Texas rice farmers to purchase water from the Highland Lakes to irrigate their crops.


On Wednesday, LCRA’s board of directors cited continued low levels in lakes Travis and Buchanan for asking the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for emergency drought relief to send less water to downstream rice farmers in 2013 than mandated by its state-approved water management plan. If approved by TCEQ it would mark the second year in a row LCRA has curtailed water to farmers, though this year it would release far more water than in 2011 because 2012 has been wetter.


Along with the debate over how water from the Highland Lakes should be used, communities in central Texas are again thinking about the other effects of a diminishing water supply. Over the past year-plus, Travis County has done its best to get out ahead of the water issues that the county faces. Though Texas counties are limited in their ability to enforce land-use regulations, Travis officials early this year passed a set of water-use restrictions attached to the county’s platting process (see In Fact Daily, Feb. 1, 2012).


In August, county officials began to look to rewrite the jurisdiction’s water quality protection regulations. That issue – as the water-use restrictions had – brought a question of county legal staff from County Judge Sam Biscoe. “Let me ask my question point blank.” he asked. “We are convinced that we have the authority to adopt these rules?” Assistant County Attorney Tom Nuckols affirmed that position. (See In Fact Daily, Aug. 2, 2012.)


Still, doubts from familiar corners lingered. Harry Savio of the Austin Homebuilders Association and engineer Hank Smith wondered at the August hearing whether the county really could enforce such changes.


The version of the forum approved by commissioners in September called for a discussion to “gather ideas, provide a list of opportunities and discuss potential future roles for the county.” The results were to be folded in to the comprehensive Land Water and Transportation Plan – the same subject partially discussed at the hearing in August – when commissioners vet it next year.


Staffers hope that an electronic survey will speed up the process.


Commissioner Ron Davis recognized the efforts of outgoing Pct. 3 Commissioner Karen Huber. “I’d like to applaud Commissioner Huber for her vision,” he said.


Davis’ statement revealed what must be the bittersweet nature of the water conversation for Huber. On Nov. 6, Huber was defeated by former Commissioner Gerald Daugherty in the race for her Pct. 3 seat. Huber had run on her efforts to improve water supply and quality in the county, but was pounded by a series of Daugherty ads and mailings that instead focused on the region’s traffic issues.

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