As the Highland Lakes in Central Texas continue to dwindle to near-historic lows, the Lower Colorado River Authority is recommending unprecedented steps to cut back freshwater releases from two of the lakes to help them recover from drought. The emergency steps would curtail releases for threatened river species, require Central Texas cities to limit outdoor watering and make it easier to cut off water from downstream rice farmers.
“It’s difficult to recommend a course of action that will likely result in most farmers not receiving water for a third straight year,” LCRA General Manager Becky Motal said in a statement. “We fully understand how painful this drought is for people throughout the basin, but we have to protect the water supply for our municipal and industrial customers.”
Currently, the agency is able to cut off water to certain customers if Lakes Travis and Buchanan drop below 850,000 acre-feet to about 43 percent of their capacity. The LCRA is proposing to increase that threshold to 55 percent, keeping 82 billion gallons of extra water in the lakes — enough to serve the whole city of Austin for more than a year. Officials argue that Travis and Buchanan need that much more water to recover before nonobligatory releases of "interruptible" water to rice farmers and other downstream users can be made. (At the moment, the lakes are at about 36 percent capacity.)
Under the recommended plan, many rice farmers who have interruptible water contracts would see their probability of receiving lake water drop even lower, despite not having received any since 2012. (Some farmers with senior water rights are still entitled to several billion gallons of water a year.) People with "interruptible" contracts pay for water at a steep discount but can be cut off during times of drought.
Jo Karr Tedder, president of the Central Texas Water Coalition, says that she is glad to see LCRA raise the threshold but that it is not nearly high enough. "1.1 million [acre-feet] will not protect the drinking water," she said, adding that 1.4 million acre-feet should be the "bare minimum" combined level of the lakes. Of the rice farmers, Tedder said, "You're not cutting them off from the river water, which they can divert. This has been tough on everybody, but we feel strongly that LCRA cannot continue taking risks on health and safety issues with drinking water" in Central Texas.
LCRA also recommends reducing “environmental releases” mandated by the state during the spawning season of the threatened blue sucker fish. The LCRA’s state-approved Water Management Plan currently requires a release of 500 cubic feet per second (cfs) into the Colorado River for six weeks during the fish’s spawning season, but the LCRA has proposed lowering the requirement to 300 cubic feet per second. Environmentalists worry the reduction could have drastic ecological consequences.
“The 500 cfs is for the spawning season,” said Jennifer Walker, who monitors water resources for the Sierra Club. “We would not like to see it altered at this point.” Walker says the LCRA should address nonessential water needs before curtailing environmental releases. “We see environmental needs as being essential,” she said.
Another LCRA recommendation would require "firm" customers — which are entitled to some water regardless of lake capacity and include several Central Texas cities — to restrict outdoor watering schedules to a maximum of once per week if combined storage is less than 1.1 million acre-feet. Some cities, including Austin, have had once-a-week watering restrictions in place for years, though Austin only began fining violators in August. Others, including Marble Falls, currently limit outdoor watering to twice per week.
Environmental advocates say the difficulty lies in striking a balance between human water needs and a level of flow adequate for river ecosystems. "The longer this kind of stressful low flow continues, the greater the potential there is for knocking populations back," said Myron Hess, manager of Texas water programs at the National Wildlife Federation. "I also recognize we've got a really serious drought that we're all dealing with, so I acknowledge the need to find a reasonable balance."
The LCRA will discuss the emergency drought relief recommendations at a Nov. 19 Water Operations Committee meeting in Austin, and will accept public comments until Nov. 18 at noon.