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As Austin's Lakes Dwindle, Gulf Coast Residents May Suffer

As the Highland Lakes that supply Austin drop to near-historic lows, the Lower Colorado River Authority is considering cutting off flows to Matagorda Bay. But officials on the Gulf Coast say the move could devastate the economy.

by Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
Kayak fishers in east Matagorda Bay.

As the Highland Lakes that supply Austin's water continue to dwindle, the Lower Colorado River Authority may take the unprecedented step of cutting off freshwater flows it normally releases from the lakes into Matagorda Bay.

Facing an increasingly desperate need for water to supply cities like Austin, the LCRA is considering whether to ask permission from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to cut off the freshwater flows, sometimes known as "environmental flows," that are usually required by the state to maintain the ecological health of water bodies farther downstream that the Colorado River empties into, namely Matagorda Bay. Board members will decide whether to ask permission for the cutoff in a meeting Wednesday morning.

The fact that the authority is considering such a move has prompted criticism from environmental advocates and some state and local officials. They worry that stopping the environmental flows could cripple wildlife and the fishing industry in Matagorda Bay — long considered a jewel of the Texas Gulf Coast — while Austinites are allowed to water their lawns without any new restrictions.

“All counties up and down the whole Colorado basin, we’re all in this drought together,” said Kent Pollard, a Matagorda County commissioner. “It certainly seems very unfair in my viewpoint for us, in this one area, to suffer any more economically than any of the other locations.”

Matagorda Bay is one of Texas' largest estuaries, transitional water bodies between the river and open sea. (The Colorado River feeds into the bay, which is connected to the Gulf of Mexico and ultimately the Carribean Sea.) Pollard said it is home to the largest shrimping fleet on the state’s Gulf Coast. Fish in the bay need freshwater to survive. Salt levels in the water have grown as a result of cuts the LCRA has already made to freshwater releases from the Highland Lakes, and area officials say oystering and shrimping have suffered.

If inflows to the bay are cut entirely for the rest of the year, as LCRA is considering, the water's salinity would rise higher, and the results could be dire, said Jennifer Walker, water resources coordinator for the Sierra Club’s Lone Star chapter.

“The bay has been on critical life support for a long time, and it’s about to be taken off,” she said.

Meanwhile, Walker and Matagorda-area officials say, there have been no new efforts to encourage conservation among Highland Lakes users, such as the city of Austin. 

“You’ve got Austinites continuing to fill up their pools, continuing to water their lawns, continuing to do pretty much everything they want to with the water supply,” said Mitch Thames, president of the Bay City Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture. 

Austin has been under Stage 2 watering restrictions since September 2012, meaning that businesses and residents can water their lawns once a week in the early morning or nighttime hours. 

Still, Lakes Travis and Buchanan are reaching near-historic lows. As of Tuesday morning, the two reservoirs combined were only 32 percent full. The lakes continue to lose about 2,000 to 3,000 acre-feet of water per day, about 0.5 percent of their current combined level of 643,000 acre-feet. If they fall to 600,000 acre-feet, which the LCRA expects will happen in October, more cutbacks will be necessary from its users.

Austin pays a premium for its guaranteed right to water from the Highland Lakes and has reduced its water demand despite major population growth. Some, including state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, say Austinites should not be asked to conserve more. Fraser said he hopes the LCRA will ask TCEQ for permission to end environmental flows to Matagorda Bay for the remainder of 2013. 

“Is the water to the critters more important than health and public safety?” Fraser asked. 

But even if the LCRA gets permission to end flows to Matagorda Bay for the rest of 2013, the water problems would remain. Cutting the flow would only save about 6,000 acre-feet — less than 5 percent of the amount of water Austin would use in one year. The authority already cut off water from the Highland Lakes to rice farmers for the second year in a row, and few other water-saving options remain. In desperation, the LCRA has floated such controversial proposals as lowering Lake Austin, which is usually kept at a constant level, to use it as a catch basin for rainwater. The idea was quickly tabled after public outcry.

Pollard, the Matagorda County commissioner, has his own proposal.

"It may be a time when they just say, ‘Hey, sorry, you can’t water your lawn,’ and actually completely cut it off,” he said. “I can guarantee you that [Austinites] use way more water in their lawn than what is being sent down to us.”

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