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Central Texas water management plan updated

Thursday, November 5, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

The Central Texas drought may continue, but the days of uncertainty about how to handle the water on which Austinites and others depend appear to be over for the foreseeable future.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality approved a major amendment to the Lower Colorado River Authority’s water management plan on Wednesday that sets stricter standards for when the authority should or should not release water from lakes Travis and Buchanan to certain downstream customers, such as rice farmers in the Lower Colorado River Basin.

“The Lower Colorado River has been badly needing some clarity and certainty moving forward, and I think it’s great that this could come together today,” said Bryan Shaw, commission chair.

The amendment will take effect as soon as the commission finalizes it or at the start of next year, depending on which comes first.

Phil Wilson, general manager of the river authority, which requested the amendment, called the approval a “positive step” in an interview with the Austin Monitor.

“You’re keeping ‘firm’ water firmer, which means you’re going to keep a higher degree of water in the lakes. You’re ensuring that we are more and more drought-proof into the future,” said Wilson. “We’re also giving certainty to the ‘interruptible’ side about the level of water they can look at into the future.”

In the language of the plan, a “firm” customer receives water from the lakes on a consistent basis, even in cases of drought. The city of Austin, for example, is a firm customer and depends on lakes Travis and Buchanan for its drinking water.

An “interruptible” customer, on the other hand, receives water on a basis that can be limited in times of drought or water shortages. These customers consist primarily of agricultural interests – including rice farmers – in Colorado, Wharton and Matagorda counties.

The amended plan, according to a river authority fact sheet, creates three curtailment conditions: “normal conditions,” “less severe drought” and “extraordinary drought.” The framework takes into account the current condition, storage, inflows and a look-ahead test to project how far levels may fall over time to determine how much water to release.

The plan also maintains a minimum combined storage in lakes Travis and Buchanan of 600,000 acre-feet, or approximately 195.5 billion gallons. As of Wednesday, the river authority reports that current combined lake storage is over 2 million acre-feet, or 78 percent of combined capacity.

Ronald Gertson, chair of a rice farmer advocacy organization called the Colorado Water Issues Committee, provided his perspective to the Monitor. “The key impact, up front, is that we now have a known plan by which we can look and see what the availability will be for next year and succeeding years. That’s a benefit to us in itself,” he said.

Under the amended plan, which is based on hydrologic data through 2013, the river authority will determine whether to release water to most interruptible customers twice annually on March 1 and July 1. The two dates anticipate the two phases of the rice farming irrigation season, which, Gertson said, typically runs from May through the middle of October every year.

“Granted, this plan makes stored water available to the farmers downstream considerably less often. We’ll be looking at curtailments, probably at least one in every four years, if you look at a long-term average,” Gertson continued. “That’s disturbing, but with the depth and breadth of drought that we just came through and the way the hydrology stacks up, that’s just what wound up being dealt to us.”

Most downstream customers have gone without water for the past four years because ongoing drought conditions have led the commission to approve a string of emergency order requests from the river authority to suspend the 2010 plan.

Greg Meszaros, director of Austin Water utility, told the Monitor that the city supports the amended plan. “It provides much stronger protections of our firm water supply from (lakes Travis and Buchanan), manages the lakes with a more look-ahead test under drought conditions to be more risk-averse and protect the water supply.”

Whether most interruptible customers will receive water in their next crop season is yet to be seen. However, John Hofmann, executive vice president of water for the river authority, said there is a chance that the current drought – which began in 2008 and is now the worst drought on record for the region – may be winding down.

“Based on the drought maps we had as recently as two weeks ago, we were still in a drought,” he wrote in an email to the Monitor. “But with the rain from the last two weeks and a forecast of El Niño-related rainy weather, we may … finally be seeing the end of it.”

Photo of Lake Travis courtesy of Joe Mabel [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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