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LCRA board votes to raise drought trigger to rice farmers’ dismay

Wednesday, November 20, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

A bitterly divided Lower Colorado River Authority Board voted Tuesday to change the drought trigger to 1.1 million acre-feet for lakes Travis and Buchanan. That means that unless combined storage improves significantly by March 1, downstream farmers will again go without water from the Highland Lakes in 2014.


With that trigger in hand, the LCRA will now seek authorization from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for emergency relief to stop interruptible water from reaching most downstream farmers in the Colorado basin. This would be the third year in a row that water was not sent downstream to interruptible customers, though previously that trigger was set at about 830,000 acre-feet.


Staff estimated that there is a 15 percent chance that the authority will reach 1.1 million acre-feet, or about 55 percent of capacity, by March 1. If it does, interruptible customers will receive 100,000 acre-feet. The combined storage of the lakes is currently about 728,000 acre-feet, or 36 percent of capacity.


Eight members voted in favor of the motion and seven against. Board Members Robert Lewis, Thomas Martine, “Buddy” Schrader, John Franklin, Franklin Scott Spears, Jett Johnson, Raymond Gill and Chair Timothy Timmerman voted in favor of the change. Board Members John Dickerson, J. Scott Arbuckle, Steve Balas, Lori Berger, Pamela Jo “PJ” Ellison, Sandra Kibby and Michael McHenry voted against.


The LCRA hearing on the trigger change was long and, at times, emotional. Many of those representing the interests of downstream customers warned that continued curtailment combined with an elevated trigger could be the end of rice farming in Texas.


Matagorda Bay County Judge Nate McDonald told the board that 95 percent of rice farming would be ended by the move.


“It’s embarrassing, for the entire board and for the LCRA,” said Berger. “It’s wrong.”


Arbuckle went a bit further, saying he believed the resolution was initiated by “political pressure and misinformation regarding water supply levels that are not a threat to human safety.”


“If you live in San Saba, Llano, Bastrop, Smithville, LaGrange, Columbus, Garwood, Wharton or Bay City, this resolution says you are expendable and non-essential for the growth and success of Texas,” said Arbuckle. “I think that, as this is written, it says to the irrigators and the people throughout the basin, ‘Go home and go broke.’”


“This resolution is horrible. Absolutely horrible,” said Arbuckle.


“I don’t think anybody has an impure heart up here,” said Spears. “I just don’t think we can gamble with over a million peoples’ lives and an economy worth $100 billion. It’s not that the downstream people aren’t important. My goodness they are, and I voted for them last time. But I’ve seen the drought worsen… I can’t take that risk.”


Along the way there were many amendments, including a proposal by Arbuckle that would have, among other things, lowered levels on Lake Austin by 2 feet. It also proposed that all municipal customers “immediately take measures to eliminate all non-essential use of water.” That motion failed in a vote of 6 to 9.


A counter move by Schrader that would have raised the trigger to 1.4 million acre-feet only won two supporters – Franklin and Schrader. Though that was the figure embraced by environmental groups and Austin’s Water Utility pushed for a trigger between 1.4 and 1.8 million, Franklin dismissed the increase as “obviously punitive.”


Austin Water Utility Director Greg Meszaros was one of the people who asked for the higher trigger.


“We have no other water supply,” said Meszaros. “All we do, all we hope to do in the future rests on Colorado River water and what is in the Highland Lakes.”


Meszaros reiterated LCRA staff concerns about historically-low lake levels and the fact that this year is on pace to have the second-lowest inflow level of all time.


“Three of the lowest inflow years in a row. That’s never happened before. That’s never even come close to happening before,” said Meszaros. “Even 1.1 million in our opinion – the City of Austin – is a very risky proposal.


In addition to raising the trigger, the LCRA also voted to impose watering limits for firm water customers for the first time ever. Those restrictions limit watering to a maximum of once-a-week if combined storage is below 1.1 million acre-feet by March 1.


The board also established penalties for failure to comply with the restrictions. Customers in violation will receive a written notice for their first violation, a fine of up to $2,000 for the second, and a fine of up to $10,000 for the third.


Austin Water Utility adopted one-day-per-week watering more than two years ago.


Some board members, like Balas, said that the new trigger would most likely become permanent. Others, like Gill, said that they hoped that it wouldn’t be the final vote on the matter, and that the entire basin would keep working on the divisive issue.


“This is what people want. These numbers will become permanent, and this will be a death blow for the rice industry,” said Balas.

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