Thursday, September 18, 2014 by Alex Dropkin

LCRA approves Water Plan changes and reservoir

The Lower Colorado River Authority’s board members unanimously voted to accept several key amendments to their its 2012 Water Management Plan Wednesday. The board also voted to build the LCRA’s first new reservoir since the 1940s.

The vote was the final step in getting the Water Management Plan ready for Texas Commission on Environmental Quality approval, which had initially sent the plan back to the LCRA in May. Changes to the plan include updated hydrological data, measures to better account for drought conditions and establishing a goal to maintain a minimum amount of storage in Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan of 600,000 acre-feet of water.

“At the end of the day, I value the voice of reason, and I think the voice of reason has come together. We’re all working together toward unifying this basin,” LCRA vice chair John Dickerson said.

In its draft report returning the plan in May, TCEQ proposed three new categories for agricultural release cutoff limits that LCRA should consider: “extraordinary drought,” “less severe drought,” and “normal conditions.” As approved on Wednesday, the water management plans contains definitions and curtailment plans for those three situations.

The new water management plan also bumps the minimum combined storage levels in the two reservoir lakes from a range of 350,000 to 420,000 acre-feet (based upon the Drought of Record) to a minimum of 600,000 acre-feet. LCRA maintains that these changes will better protect the water supply for firm customers, a group made up mostly by cities and industries that have a contract for uninterruptible water unless a drought worse than the Drought of Record is declared.

After the unanimous vote on the plan, the board received a round of applause supporting the decision. Area policymakers that spoke at the meeting in support of the changes included State Rep. Donna Howard, Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty on behalf of the Court and Williamson County Commissioner Cynthia Long.

“I want to thank you as well, staff and the board, for moving forward with stakeholders to ensure that this is something that everybody can appreciate, respect and move forward with,” Howard said. “We are so often jaded about the political process … but what you’ve shown here gives us faith in the process.”

When approached with proposed changes to the water management plan at their August meeting, LCRA board members directed staff to meet with stakeholders. LCRA staff has held three stakeholder meetings since, and brought additional changes forward in a final water management plan Wednesday.

The LCRA originally submitted the water management plan in 2012, but it was actually assembled with work and data collected up to a year and a half earlier, before the state began to experience its current drought.

“As the TCEQ worked through this amendment and also received input on emergency relief requested by LCRA in the last year, it became apparent that even since the time that application was submitted, additional data and changes to the Water Management Plan were warranted,” TCEQ executive director Richard Hyde told the LCRA in a May letter.

LCRA staff will submit a finalized proposal to TCEQ within the next month.

To help downstream rice farmers that have gone without LCRA releases for three years, the board also approved plans for a 40,000 acre-foot off-channel reservoir in Wharton County. LCRA says the reservoir will add up to 90,0000 acre-feet per year to the water supply, a countermeasure to the downstream curtailments laid out in the new plan.

The LCRA plans to break ground on the $214.9 million Lane City reservoir later this year. It is expected to begin operating in 2017. The new reservoir will allow the LCRA to capture rain that falls downstream of the Highland Lakes. That area receives about double the rainfall of the upstream area on average. Authorities expect the reservoir will reduce the need to send water from the Highland Lakes to downstream areas near the coast.

In addition to this strategy, the LCRA will also be pursuing the use of groundwater in Bastrop County and, according to a press release, “other new water supply projects.”

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Lower Colorado River Authority: The quasi-governmental organization charged with, among other key items, regulating water policy for the Lower Colorado River--the body of water that runs through the heart of Austin. The creation of the organization in 1934--and the eventual series of dams it built--helped send electricity to portions of the Texas Hill Country.

Texas Commission on Environmental Quality: environmental regulating authority for the State of Texas.

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