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At "Kumbaya" Meeting, a New Colorado River Plan is Approved

The Lower Colorado River Authority approved a new plan on Wednesday to manage the Colorado River and its reservoirs, known as the Highland Lakes.

by Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
A 2013 look at at a boat dock at Lake Travis, whose water level decreased markedly amid a historic drought. Lake Travis is part of the Central Texas' Highland Lakes.

After nearly four years of emotional debate amid persistent drought, the Lower Colorado River Authority approved a new plan on Wednesday to manage the Colorado River and its reservoirs in Central Texas, known as the Highland Lakes. 

The plan appeared to mollify many competing users in the river basin — including Austin and other Central Texas cities that rely on the Highland Lakes for water, as well as environmental advocates concerned about freshwater flows from the lakes.

The cities, which pay extra money for guarantees of water in times of drought, said the plan helps better protect their water supplies. And environmental advocates said they were pleased the river authority gave more room for releases of freshwater from the lakes into the river to protect wildlife all the way to the Gulf Coast.

"This sounds like it's going to be a 'kumbaya' meeting," state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, said as the board started its meeting at the LCRA's Austin headquarters. "We so often are jaded about the political process ... but what you've shown here, I think, gives us faith in the process." 

But conspicuously absent from the public speakers at the authority's board meeting on Wednesday were coastal farmers, who irrigate their farms with water from the lakes. Most of them grow rice, a water-intensive crop. 

Under the new plan, the LCRA would not deliver any water to farmers until the Highland Lakes are more than half full. That's a much higher "trigger level" than the previous plan, which cuts off water for irrigation only when the lakes are less than 30 percent full — though the authority has been operating under various emergency plans with trigger levels as high as 38 percent.

"It's hard for the lower basin," said John Dickerson III, an LCRA board member from Matagorda County, where rice farming is prevalent and where fishermen rely on freshwater inflows from the Colorado River into Matagorda Bay to maintain healthy oysters and shrimp. "I'm going to ask this board ... to continue to find a way to provide water to help feed America and to provide water for our bays and estuaries and our environment out there."

The lakes are only 34 percent full today, and the chances of gaining even a few percentage points appear slim. Coastal farmers have been cut off from Highland Lakes water since 2012, and rice production in the state has dropped dramatically. 

Ronald Gertson, a fifth-generation rice farmer in Wharton County, said in an interview that the plan would cause more businesses on the coast to "shutter their doors as a result of the lack of stability in the rice production in the area." Rice farmers who can afford switching to groundwater have been doing just that, impacting the Gulf Coast aquifer. Nearby residents have accused the farmers' pumping of causing their wells to go dry. 

But Central Texas cities, the LCRA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality — which still has to approve the final plan — all say that conditions in the lower Colorado River basin have changed significantly in the past few years, meaning that the management of the resource must also change. In the past, allocation of water from the Highland Lakes was based mostly on how much water they contain, or the "trigger level." In the new plan, the LCRA also takes into account data on "inflow" — the amount of water that has flowed into the lakes in recent months from rain events. 

Inflow can change dramatically based on weather and climate conditions. Even with a large rain event for Central Texas, the overall hot and dry conditions can cause the water to evaporate or be sucked up into dry soil, rather than running off into the Highland Lakes. In the past year, hot and dry conditions have caused huge rainstorms to have little to no impact on lake levels.  

"This is about the best we can do with the framework we've got right now," said Steve Box, an environmental advocate who focuses on the Colorado River. "Literally, almost everybody is on board with it. ... It brought a lot of healing up and down the basin. And we are going forward with a plan that everybody can get behind."

State Sens. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, who have been fierce critics of the LCRA, released a statement Wednesday praising the authority’s board for the plan. 

But they pointed out that the TCEQ still has to give the final stamp of approval. 

"With each passing day of little rain, this region continues to navigate an unprecedented drought," the senators wrote. "If we keep setting new records, even this plan may require revisiting in the future."

Disclosure: The Lower Colorado River Authority is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here

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