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Motal to end controversial tenure as LCRA General Manager

Thursday, September 19, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Lower Colorado River Authority General Manager Becky Motal announced on Wednesday that she will retire on Dec. 31. LCRA board members will look for her replacement, beginning immediately.

 

Her departure comes as the organization – a quasi-independent utility with deep roots in Central Texas political history – struggles to redefine itself in the wake of mass departures, the ceding of a network of small water utilities, what some characterize as a retreat from an outdoor preservation mission, and, of course, a persistent drought.

 

LCRA also faced critics at the legislature, headlined by State Senators Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay) and Kirk Watson (D-Austin). Fraser and Watson both represent districts in the state’s Highland Lakes region, and have been deeply critical of LCRA’s Water Management Plan – a document that still allows for water releases for downstream agricultural use.

 

Watson did not return a request for comment. LCRA’s board of directors voted to accept Motal’s resignation Wednesday.

 

Board Chair Tim Timmerman offered a statement: “Becky took the reins during what may be the most challenging time ever at LCRA,” Timmerman said. “She managed LCRA through a series of crises from devastating wildfires to electric customer disputes to what may be the worst drought on record. I and the rest of the Board very much appreciate her service.”

 

With the region in the thick of a drought that threatens to send water levels below a trigger point that would force mandatory conservation for its wholesale water customers, the utility has not released water for farming in two years.

 

Over the past few weeks, LCRA floated the suggestion that it could save some water by temporarily lowering one or more of its pass-through lakes, including Lake Austin, which the LCRA normally keeps at a relatively constant level.

 

The idea was met with frustration and alarm from stakeholders. Last week, Timmerman was forced to walk back the idea. “Our Board is looking at innovative ways to expand and extend our water supply, but the idea of lowering the lakes is not and has not been a serious consideration,” he said on Sept. 12. At the same time, the LCRA quickly removed from its web site a detailed graphic showing how a temporary lowering of Lake Austin would work.

 

Another recent idea, a cutoff of Highland Lake flows to Matagorda Bay, has been met with similar amount of concern, this time from environmental groups worried that the action will negatively affect the Bay’s ecosystem. LCRA’s board of directors voted 9-6 yesterday to move forward with a request to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to allow the organization to cut Matagorda Bay flows.

 

The vote happened before the distribution of a news release announcing Motal’s retirement.

 

Motal took over the organization in July 2011, after former general manager – and local favorite Tom Mason – stepped down. At the time, it was rumored that Mason was forced out.

 

Motal was immediately forced into difficult decisions and controversy over the sale of the utility’s water and wastewater systems. Initially awarded entirely to a private Canadian firm, many of those systems were eventually sold to municipal interests.

 

Motal’s tenure also saw the culling of the organization’s workforce – a move cast as a restructuring – and rumors of deep dissatisfaction within the rank and file. Employees with thousands of years combined experience retired, took buyouts, or were let go. An experienced LCRA watcher (who asked to remain unidentified) with deep knowledge about the workings of the organization told In Fact Daily Wednesday that whispers had been circulating about Motal’s departure for weeks.

 

I heard there was a fair amount of work being done to collect enough votes (to force her out),” the observer said.

 

As for Motal’s performance in general, the observer was circumspect. “It’s not Becky Motal’s fault that it didn’t rain. The organization seems to be responding to this crisis in fits and starts… and the way it was presented to the public was confusing. That ultimately is the General Manager’s responsibility,” the person said. “She inherited a very tough problem and she presented some solutions, but it was confusing and not well coordinated with the board – they’ve had to retrench. The community deserves to know what a comprehensive plan is from LCRA ….and they’re not getting it.”

 

Another observer who has been closely following the LCRA’s response to the dwindling water supply, told In Fact Daily, “The LCRA has lost a great deal of credibility over the past few years.  The person, who also wished to remain anonymous, added, “Somehow the LCRA has managed to alienate just about every constituency possible. Some of the anger has been deserved. Some has not. A big problem has been that Motal has chased away many excellent employees, including top managers with years of expertise in dealing with difficult issues. On top of that, the organization has a bunker mentality that has made a bad situation worse.”  

 

There is little disagreement that the crisis LCRA is facing right now is unprecedented in the history of management of the Colorado River and the Highland Lakes. It will now be up to the board and Gov. Rick Perry to find a good leader and communicator to steer the agency through the rough months – and possibly years – ahead.

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