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Travis County Commissioners back LCRA emergency drought order

Wednesday, February 12, 2014 by Jimmy Maas

Travis County Commissioners voted Tuesday to back the Lower Colorado River Authority’s 2014 emergency drought order that would again limit the release of Highland Lakes water to agriculture interests downstream.


The three-member Texas Commission on Environmental Quality are expected to take final action today amid new discouraging information about the drought. TCEQ’s executive director approved an emergency request by the LCRA two weeks ago, but commissioners will decide today whether to reaffirm the decision or abandon it.


The order would relieve the LCRA of its obligation to the release of water into the farmland and estuaries further downstream, as stipulated in its 2010 Water Management Plan.


In documents filed with the TCEQ this week, LCRA staff experts said the three worst years for water inflows from tributaries into the Highland Lakes since 1942 were 2011, 2013 and 2008, in that order. The inflows are what replenish the lakes. Also, monthly inflows have been below average in 44 of the past 45 months. Drought is expected to persist for the next three months, with no clear signs of relief after that, LCRA filings stated.


The Colorado River feeds into Lake Travis and Lake Austin. The lakes are the prime source for water in Austin and Travis County. That water also comes out the east end of Lady Bird Lake and serves a long stretch of Southeast Texas along SH 71 to Columbus, then down to Matagorda Bay.


The LCRA has made the request the last three years, according to John White of Travis County Transportation and Natural Resources Department.


“Under the plan, they would still be required to release the bare minimum of environmental flows to retain flow in the rivers here in Austin and will allow for a minimal amount of water flowing into Matagorda Bay,” White told Travis commissioners. “It’s a very complicated management scheme that is used to maintain instream flows and environmental flows. The order as presently existing would enable the LCRA to basically cut off all but the very minimal flows up until they reach the level of 1.1 million acre-feet of storage.”


The action would allow the LCRA to store more water for Central Texas. That number is higher than the 2010 mandate trigger of 600,000 acre-feet when the LCRA was required to release more water downstream. An acre-foot of water is approximately 326,000 gallons and usually enough to supply the water needs of one to two households for a year.


Combined storage is currently about 763,000 acre-feet, so it would take a near-biblical flood to get to that point in a few weeks. In its new filings, the LCRA estimates there is a 58 percent chance that combined water stored in the two lakes would drop below 600,000 acre-feet by Aug. 31 if the agency had to send water to the farmers. Such a drop would trigger a declaration of a drought worse than the drought of record and force significant limits on LCRA water customers, including Austin and other area communities.


“We are seeing record low levels of inflow to the lakes, even worse than during the 1950s,” White told the court. “So it’s a serious problem. It’s kind of thrown them off their game in terms of their existing plan. They are in the process of working on a new plan, but they’re probably still a year away of having that thing finalized.”


Commissioners voted 4-0 with Pct. 4 Commissioner Margaret Gomez abstaining.

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