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TCEQ says LCRA Water Management Plan needs more study

Tuesday, June 4, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Executive Director Zak Covar ruled Monday that the most recent update to the Lower Colorado River Authority’s Water Management Plan would require more administrative review before it is forwarded on for a commission vote. Though LCRA welcomed the move in a Monday press release, the decision sets codification of the plan back at least 10 months.


Covar’s decision comes as the organization wrestles with two major, divergent groups of wholesale water customers. The first – downstream agricultural interests – are desperately fighting off multiple attempts to offer less water to rice farming in southeast Texas. The second – upstream, mostly municipal water customers – argue that their firm water contracts entitle them to guaranteed water access, even in times of extreme drought.  


The 2012 plan was approved amid a flurry of last minute bargaining that was not entirely embraced by either stakeholders or LCRA’s board of directors. Approval came only after director J. Scott Arbuckle tried and failed to introduce a host of amendments to the plan. Ultimately Arbuckle, Lori BergerSteve BalasJohn Dickerson, and Board Secretary Kathleen White voted against passage. (See In Fact Daily, Feb. 23, 2012)


That battle found its way to the 2013 edition of the Texas State Legislature. There, Sens. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) and Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay) – representatives of upstream, Highland Lakes interests – tried to legislatively preserve a cutoff for rice farmers in extreme drought. That move was unsuccessful.


In a letter to LCRA General Manager Becky Motal, Covar wrote that “further evaluation” of the organization’s water plan “is appropriate in order to take in to account information raised in the public comments.”


“TCEQ received many comments on the draft (Water Management Plan) provisions, as well as requests for a contested case hearing,” Covar noted.


Watson and Fraser issued a joint press release Monday that praised Covar’s decision. Each of the senators appeared thrilled with the move. “We could not be more pleased that the TCEQ has considered our request for review of the proposed plan and new modeling today,” said Fraser. “For the past two years, the LCRA has had emergency orders that would still be needed if the proposed (new Water Management) plan was in place. Clearly this plan is flawed as it does not accomplish the purpose for which it is intended – protecting firm water customers during a repeat of the drought of record.”


Watson said, “TCEQ’s call to further review this critical regional water plan just underscores the concerns that Central Texans have been airing for two years.


“In terms of its intensity, this is a historic drought. A water management plan that truly protects the citizens and economy of Central Texas must take these incredibly dry conditions into account. I appreciate that TCEQ will now do their own modeling and collect the data that will drive a sound and protective plan.”


In the release, Fraser and Watson both framed the issue in terms of upstream concern and took credit for a chunk of the public pressure that Covar acknowledged in his letter. Fraser and (Watson), it reads, “have been urging the LCRA to propose a water management plan requiring the LCRA to ensure that water will be available to firm users, even in times of drought. Having sent numerous letters to the LCRA, filed legislation and taken testimony to the TCEQ, the senators have continued to ask for updated water modeling and an improved plan that protects firm customers through times of drought.”


For its part, the LCRA embraced the move. “There is no more important issue facing this region now than the drought, and having a plan that protects the water supply for our firm customers is critical,” Motal said in a press release. “We welcome the further review, and LCRA stands ready to assist TCEQ as needed.”


LCRA reports that it will continue to operate under the 2010 Water Management Plan until the conclusion of TCEQ deliberations.


The organization has curtailed downstream water use in each of the last two years. Last month, it approved the construction of downstream reservoirs that could offset some of the pressure on agricultural interests brought by both the drought and ever-feisty water politics.

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