Following hours of heated public testimony, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality on Wednesday determined it couldn't yet make a decision on instituting a temporary emergency plan that would likely cut off the flow of water to rice farmers in the Lower Colorado River Basin for the third straight year. The growing season begins in March.
The commissioners' inability to make a decision — despite agency staffers' recommendation that they approve the plan — is a strong indicator of how bad the battle has become between water users along the Colorado River, which is managed by the Lower Colorado River Authority. The commissioners instead referred the issue to an administrative law judge, who will hear arguments on the case and must issue a recommendation by Feb. 21.
“I think it’s going to be more useful and effective if we go through this additional step to make sure that due process is indeed protected," said TCEQ chairman Bryan Shaw.
Upstream users of the Colorado River's dammed Highland Lakes — like the city of Austin and other Central Texas communities — support the proposed plan. But downstream users, including Gulf Coast-area rice farmers and fishermen, vehemently oppose it. So do environmentalists concerned about the health of the Colorado River and the Gulf Coast estuary, Matagorda Bay, that depends on freshwater inflows from the river.
The Highland Lakes are 38 percent full today. Under the proposed emergency plan, the LCRA would withhold water releases downstream to rice farmers and Matagorda Bay until the lakes rise to more than 50 percent of their capacity. Even then, water could be curtailed. Multiple severe rainstorms would have to occur between now and next month, when the rice growing season begins, for the lakes' capacity to increase that much.
Even if the emergency plan doesn't pass, most rice farmers aren't likely to receive water deliveries anyway; under standing LCRA rules, the farmers' supply is cut off if lakes are less than 42 percent full. Downstream users are so opposed to the emergency plan because it raises that trigger to nearly 55 percent. They argue the state and the river authority would be sending a message that agriculture is no longer a priority in Texas.
“I cannot understand why it would be more important to back a jetski into the water or restore the view of a lakeside home than it is to grow food for more than 800,000 people in a year," said Timothy Gertson, a fifth-generation rice farmer in Wharton County.
But Central Texas water users counter that they are feeling the pain just as much as rice farmers. Businesses and residents along the Highland Lakes said they have lost millions of dollars in revenue because boat ramps, marinas and lakeside restaurants have been closed due to low lake levels.
"The Texas way of doing business is to look out for its residents," said Chris Fielder, the mayor of Leander, a city of about 33,000 people that depends on Lake Travis for its water supply. Fielder said the city has already spent $3.5 million on a new water intake system because its previous pumps did not reach the lake's low levels. If levels drop more, he said, "Leander's drought-related costs could exceed $10 million." Greg Meszaros, director of Austin Water Utility, said the flows through his city's water treatment plants have been so low at times that the plants' operation has been affected, costing the city money and posing a potential threat to public health.
Environmental and conservation groups argue that water released downstream by the Lower Colorado River Authority to rice farmers courses through a large portion of the Colorado River, supporting important fish and wildlife habitat. The loss of that water could cripple the river and its surrounding land, they say, and cause further damage to shrimp and oysters in Matagorda Bay.
"This order goes too far," said Jennifer Walker, water resources coordinator for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. She added that the emergency order, which would only last a few months but could easily be extended, doesn't provide for extra flows to Matagorda Bay even if the lakes' levels increase significantly.