After a contentious meeting over its latest drought management plan, which is almost sure to cut off water for coastal rice farmers in the lower Colorado River Basin for the third year in a row, the Lower Colorado River Authority voted 8-7 on Tuesday to approve the proposal.
Under the plan, if the Highland Lakes that provide water for Austin and much of Central Texas do not reach a level of at least 1.1 million acre-feet by March, the LCRA will not release water for irrigation downstream. Since the lakes only have 727,000 acre-feet today, about 36 percent of full, it would take historic levels of rainfall in the next several months to bring them back up to the 1.1 million "trigger."
The Halloween floods that devastated parts of Central Texas recently had almost no effect on lake levels because the rain fell too far east. Had it fallen just a few miles farther west, LCRA staff said, the lakes could have gained as much as 200,000 acre-feet in one weekend.
The decision to implement the plan did not come easily. The LCRA said it received 130 public comments before the meeting, which more than 100 people attended. The objections from dozens of people who spoke, along with comments from the board members, reflected a wide variety of competing interests along the 600-mile Colorado River and the unprecedented consequences of several years of severe drought.
"We've had pain from one end of the basin to the other," said the board's chairman, Timothy Timmerman, an Austin real estate developer who has felt the effects of the dwindling reservoir that feeds the city. "None of us enjoy being in this situation."
Many of those in attendance from Austin, including the city's water utility director Greg Meszaros, state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, and a representative from the office of state Sen. Kirk Watson said a trigger of 1.1 million acre-feet wasn't high enough. A limit of 1.4 million acre-feet would be more appropriate, they said, to help preserve property values for lakeside residents and maintain waterfront businesses as well as to protect the drinking water supplies for Central Texas residents. "We must advocate for the most risk-averse strategy," Howard said.
Many others, though, argued the opposite, that the trigger should either be lower or stay at the current level of 850,000 acre-feet.
"The rice farmers were there first," said state Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, arguing that the state law that created the LCRA requires the agency to release water for irrigation purposes. "I'm upset today, not just for the rice farmers. I'm upset for Texas. We're better than this."
After public comment ended, Vice Chairman John Dickerson, who lives in Bay City, a town that has been hit hard by reduced freshwater inflows from the Colorado River into Matagorda Bay, implored the board to postpone voting until it holds a stakeholder meeting. His proposal lost by one vote. J. Scott Arbuckle, a board member who also hails from the lower Colorado River basin in Wharton County, called for even more drastic water restrictions and a lowering of the "constant level" lakes, such as Lake Austin. His idea failed, too.
The agency's drought management proposal now goes to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for review. If the TCEQ approves the plan, it would be implemented in 2014.