In a decision fraught with controversy, the board of the Lower Colorado River Authority voted Wednesday to release water to rice farmers near the Gulf of Mexico next spring if Central Texas' Highland Lakes, already diminished by drought, do not drop below 38.5 percent full.
If Lakes Travis and Buchanan are above 775,000 acre-feet on either Jan. 1 or March 1, the rice farmers would receive 121,000 acre-feet of water. Currently the lakes hold 860,000 acre-feet of water, just 43 percent of their total capacity and well below normal.
The plan, approved by the board in a 10-4 vote (with one member absent), is a compromise between a 2010 water management plan, which would have made 185,000 acre-feet available for irrigation, and a 2011 emergency plan that cut water to rice farmers in Wharton, Matagorda and Colorado counties entirely last year when lake levels dropped below 850,000 acre-feet.
The LCRA's long-standing policy is that water sales to rice farmers can be reduced or ended in times of drought, but its other customers — particularly Central Texas cities like Austin — must be able to get water. (However, in times of drought, the cities, too, are asked to reduce their water use, which they can accomplish through lawn-watering restrictions. Austin currently allows lawn watering just once a week.)
The LCRA will have to get approval from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality before the plan can be put into practice.
“This isn’t what I would want if it was a perfect world,” said board director Scott Spears, who put the plan forward. “It’s designed to put together enough of us to vote for it that we can avoid this 'aqua cliff' and reasonably expect the TCEQ to approve it.”
Spears lives on Lake Travis and said during the board’s discussion that the plan is not ideal for people living near the Highland Lakes, who have seen their recreational activities affected as water levels have declined.
Board members and public commenters Wednesday aired concern that releasing any water to rice farmers could lead to interruptions in water service for residential customers and other customers (like cities) whose service is supposed to be guaranteed.
Burnet County Judge Donna Klaeger said the plan will likely lead to more of her constituents living without access to tap water.
“We have communities out of water already. It’s not in the future; we’re living it every day,” Klaeger said.
Others said that continuing to withhold water from rice farmers could hurt the state by crippling the economy in the agricultural region of Wharton, Matagorda and Colorado counties. Chris King, a Wharton County commissioner, said the board passed a suitable compromise.
“This gives our region an opportunity to produce at least a portion of a crop, which I compare to a lifeline,” King said. “It’s possible that some of the businesses that were considering failing will be able to hang on one more year.”
Austin attorney Randy Wilburn said he expects the plan the LCRA approved Wednesday will lead to lake levels falling below 600,000 acre-feet, lower than during the drought of the 1950s, still considered the worst in recorded Texas history. If that happens, he said, the LCRA would automatically have to reduce the amount of water it allocates to "firm" customers like Austin's water utility. (The LCRA defines a "firm" customer as one that must always get some amount of water.)
But board chairman Timothy Timmerman said maintaining service for "firm" customers was the board’s top priority, and the board will continue to monitor drought conditions and put forth a new plan if conditions change for the worse. LCRA staff said there is less than a 10 percent chance of levels dropping below 600,000 acre-feet if the water is made available for farmers, he said.
“We will continue to monitor this on a daily basis to make sure we are not at risk of putting any of our firm customers at risk,” Timmerman said.