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Much At Stake as LCRA Chooses a New Leader

The Lower Colorado River Authority is searching for a new leader — and whoever gets the job will be taking the reins at one of the most tumultuous times in agency's history.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
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*Clarification appended

To understand the level of crisis facing the Lower Colorado River Authority, look no further than the three-page job description the agency has drafted in its search for a new general manager.

The new head of the nonprofit state agency, which provides water to entities along the Colorado River all the way from Austin to the Gulf Coast, should be “a good listener,” the description reads, a “politically savvy bridge-builder” who is “unflappable under pressure.”

One of the major goals for the individual, the document continues, will be to “rebuild morale through the organization,” which will require the “ultimate ‘coach’ personality.”

To some, it might sound like an impossible task. But it's clear that whoever is chosen to head the LCRA, a state nonprofit agency that is both a wholesale water supplier and an electric company with 1,800 employees and an annual budget of more than $1 billion, will face some of the toughest challenges the once-revered organization has dealt with in decades. 

Former LCRA spokesman Robert Cullick, now a consultant, said one reaction he’d heard to the job description was, “Sounds like they’d have to walk on water.” To which the response from another person in the room was, “Yeah, they would ... if there was any water to walk on.”

The lack of confidence at the agency was made clear by the sudden announcement in September of the impending exit of current General Manager Becky Motal. She left despite having been at the helm of the agency less than two and a half years, making a salary of $395,000 and receiving a 22 percent raise and three-year contract renewal in 2012.

The news of her departure came amid controversy over a plan that LCRA considered that would lower Lake Austin, which is normally a constant-level lake, so it could catch more rainfall — providing there would be rain to catch. The plan was quickly scuttled after public outcry, but the agency also took heat over another proposal that would have cut off required flows downstream to save only 6,000 acre-feet of water. That's as much as Austin’s lakes lose during just three summer days. Ultimately, the LCRA shelved the idea after fall rains rendered it unnecessary. 

“We’re in danger of being a basin where there are big winners and big losers involved,” Andrew Sansom, director of the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University, said in an interview last month. “We shouldn’t allow it to be all about winning and losing.” 

So far, though, none of the competing interests along the Colorado River feel they’re being treated fairly in the midst of Central Texas’ debilitating drought.

More than 70 years ago, the LCRA was created largely for the purpose of providing water from the Colorado River to Gulf Coast-area rice farmers. Those farmers have been cut off from their water supplies for the past two years, drawing harsh criticism from agricultural advocates across the state and from the surrounding communities that have suffered economic hardships.

Meanwhile, the very interests the LCRA was trying to protect by forcing rice farmers to go without — the dwindling Highland Lakes that Austin and nearby cities rely on for water supplies — aren’t satisfied. Bowing to their pressure, the organization voted last month, during a contentious public meeting, on a plan that would almost certainly cut off rice farmers again in 2014 to preserve Austin’s reservoirs, which are only 37 percent full.

“Growing a crop that is not water-efficient in the middle of a mega-drought is just kind of crazy,” said Jo Karr Tedder, president of the Central Texas Water Coalition, which represents lakeside interests. The LCRA may have been created under the political influence of rice farmers, she said, but that political dynamic can’t continue. “Now, you’ve got millions of people and drinking water to consider,” she said.

The plan will also affect fishing and tourism industries in Matagorda Bay, which depends on freshwater from the Colorado River to keep shellfish alive and has already been hit hard by a lack of flows from the LCRA.

Managing the competing interests in the Colorado’s lower river basin — and preparing for future droughts that could be even more severe — will only be one part of the new general manager’s job. Supplying power to more than 1 million people generates most of the agency’s billion-dollar revenues each year, and that business is also under threat.

A large chunk of LCRA’s electric customers, including several cities and some electric utility cooperatives, decided in recent years that they would stop buying power from the agency in 2016. That could lead to a loss of hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue each year. And it led to a downgrade of the agency’s credit rating in 2011 and expensive legal fights with some utilities that wanted to end their contracts early. It also led to layoffs in 2011 that may continue unless LCRA finds a large enough new customer base.

That anticipated revenue loss has implications for all of LCRA’s activities — power and water supply, education programs, parkland management and environmental projects. LCRA’s power business helps the agency attract and pay top talent. Plus, a small portion of its electricity revenue trickles into the water budget — although electric customers aren’t willing to provide more money for badly needed water infrastructure projects, including an off-channel reservoir downstream of Austin that many hope will store water for rice farmers in the future.

Motal will retire at the end of the year and be replaced by interim General Manager Ross Phillips, currently her deputy, who has primarily worked on the electric power side of the business. The LCRA remains tight-lipped about who it is considering to take the position for the long term. Applications were due Nov. 15, but the agency refused to provide copies of the documents in response to a public information request, asking the attorney general’s office to allow it to withhold information about the applicants.

However, two well-known figures in Texas government are known to be in the running, according to multiple sources familiar with the search, including water rights lawyers and water agency officials: Phil Wilson, the executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation, and Kathleen Hartnett White, former chairwoman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, who was also once a member of LCRA’s board. White is now a distinguished senior fellow-in-residence at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and an outspoken critic of the growing scientific consensus that global warming is occurring and is induced by humans.

Sansom said it would be a positive development for the LCRA to hire someone from outside of its ranks who has not recently been involved in policy along the Colorado River.

“I’m not one who believes that the person that they hire can be completely free of politics, just simply because of the nature of the job,” Sansom said. But he said he hopes the new manager won’t let political infighting or pressure be an undue influence.

Or, as the job description says, whoever gets the job must have “emotional capacity to deal with conflict at all levels.”

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story said Becky Motal had been at the LCRA for two-and-a-half years. She has been general manager for two-and-a-half years.

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