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LCRA board vote likely means no water to rice farmers again

Wednesday, January 9, 2013 by Michael Kanin

For the second year in a row, the downstream rice-farming wholesale water customers of the Lower Colorado River Authority seem set to go without Colorado River water for crop irrigation.


LCRA directors voted unanimously Tuesday to raise the combined lake storage level that will trigger a downstream irrigation cutoff from 775,000 acre feet to 850,000 acre feet of water (an acre foot is equal to 326,000 gallons). Though the action leaves open the possibility that rice farmers could still receive water releases from the river authority, it’s unlikely given that lakes Travis and Buchanan are only 41 percent full and now have just 826,000 acre-feet of water.


“We’re going to not be able to release water unless we get a significant amount of rain in the next three months,” LCRA general manager Becky Motal said in a press conference after the board vote. The new plan will have to be approved by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).


On a day when Central Texas enjoyed several inches of rain, Motal later characterized the rainfall amounts needed as “maybe four or five inches of rain on multiple occasions, somewhat back-to-back.”


With their vote, LCRA board members effectively step back from a November action that seemed to presage a water release to downstream agricultural interests, an action that was met with criticism from municipal water customers, including the City of Austin, which have firm contracts to the Colorado River water to supply drinking water to Central Texas communities.


Downstream farmers have interruptible contracts. That means that the LCRA can stop water supplies, should conditions warrant such action; but last year was the first time LCRA has ever cut off downstream agricultural users’ water.


Opposition and support of the change in policy broke along predictable lines. Representatives from the Highland Lakes interests thanked board members for their willingness to revisit their November action, and issued broad messages of support.


Austin Water Utility Director Greg Meszaros told the board that the city supports further curtailment of downstream water releases. He urged the board to remain “guarded and cautious” as it proceeds with drought-time policy.


Members of Burnet County’s Commissioners Court were also ready to see downstream taps turned off. They called for LCRA directors to extend an emergency declaration from 2011, which would have offered no irrigation for a possible second rice crop should the region see a miraculous amount of rain.


Specifically, LCRA’s board ratified a plan recommended by LCRA staffers to provide water for both first and second crop irrigation only if the combined storage in the Highland Lakes was more than 850,000 acre-feet on March 1. Just how much water would be released to farmers would be determined by how much is left in the lakes on a series of dates.


Rice farmers and downstream politicians criticized the water cutoff, which they said would harm the water-dependent environment and economy of the rice-growing region of Colorado, Wharton and Matagorda counties. “You need to be concerned about the people who sell the chemicals, the crop dusters. You need to be concerned about the people who drive the trucks,” said Wharton County Judge Phillip Spenrath.


“Just in one rice field they let 21 guys go last year,” Spenrath continued. “A lot of them lost their homes – some of them did. They had to move. Those guys aren’t buying cars. Those guys aren’t buying TVs. So now the TV store is not selling; the bank is not loaning money.”


Matagorda County Judge Nate McDonald called on the board to split the region’s pain. “The lower three counties beared the pain entirely last year,” he said.


Before casting his vote in favor of the changes, LCRA director John Dickerson – who comes from a rice-farming family – urged his colleagues to implement conservation measures for firm water customers.


The sentiment was echoed widely, and even LCRA’s Motal seemed to support the idea. “I think what the board member was talking about is a very excellent point,” Motal said in the press conference. “His point was, to the extent that we don’t release any water for agriculture this year, we haven’t released any in 2012 to speak of, we just haven’t had the in-flow. So the lakes are not recovering. We are in a drought that is a fairly significant drought.”


“So we will need to, at some point, all work together and implement conservation across the board so we can extend that water supply as long as we need to,” Motal continued.


After the board vote, Meszaros reminded In Fact Daily that the City of Austin has already taken significant conservation steps. “I think sometimes that downstream board members and downstream constituents may not understand the depths that Austin has already gone to conserve water voluntarily,” he said.


LCRA board Chair Tim Timmerman urged those in attendance to pay attention to the board’s next meeting, set for next week. He more or less promised that he and his colleagues would take action to approve the building of an off-channel reservoir in the lower part of the river basin that could relieve some supply pressures. The proposed reservoir could capture up to 90,000-acre feet of water to supply rice farmers.


After the hearing, Motal echoed this message. “LCRA is trying to be proactive,” she said. “We can’t control the drought. We can’t control the inputs. We cannot make it rain. But we can try to manage the water supply.”

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