Despite recent wet weather, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality affirmed an emergency order Wednesday that extends limits on downstream releases from Lakes Travis and Buchanan.
The move comes in response to a request from the Lower Colorado River Authority and essentially cuts off water from the lakes to rice farmers and interests in the Gulf Coast, Lakeside and Pierce Ranch irrigation operations through Oct. 15 and as many as 60 days after. The affirmed order includes limited exceptions for the Garwood Irrigation Division.
According to a river authority press release, most downstream customers are currently going without water from the lakes for the fourth year in a row.
John Hoffman, executive vice president of water at the river authority, provided the Austin Monitor with a written statement following the decision.
“We are pleased the emergency relief that’s been in place since the spring will continue through the end of the growing season this year,” Hoffman wrote. “We are mindful of the hardships this drought has caused throughout the lower Colorado River basin, and we are hopeful the recent wet El Niño weather pattern will continue to fill the lakes over the next few months.”
The previous emergency order was set to expire after June 18. The river authority requested the current emergency order on May 15 and updated it on June 5 to reflect heavy rainfall. TCEQ Executive Director Richard Hyde granted the request on June 17, and the unanimous affirmation from the agency’s two commissioners cemented that decision.
Commission Chairman Bryan Shaw explained why he supported the order. “There’s a lot of things that indicate that things are hopefully going to get better, but we’ve seen historically that they sometimes don’t,” he said. “I think it’s more appropriate, based on the facts before us, to approve this emergency order moving forward.”
The decision comes during a period of uncertainty about the future of the Austin-area water supply. Although the combined level for the two reservoir lakes has increased to 71 percent from 36 percent earlier this year — when the river authority announced the current regional drought to be the worst on record — many are concerned that the drought may continue.
Greg Graml, an attorney representing the river authority, offered this perspective. “While significant, the past two months of inflows do not break the drought that, prior to May, consisted of below-average inflows in all but one month out of the past five years,” he said, adding that Lake Buchanan is still only slightly above half its capacity.
“While the forecast is promising, the reality of the past 10 years is that wet years in 2007 and 2010 have only been interruptions in an overall dry period,” Graml continued. “In the 1950s drought of record, following major flooding in 1952, it was another five years before the lakes refilled.”
The current drought officially began in 2008.
Two of the three public speakers who stood before TCEQ expressed support for the request. The third, Colorado Water Issues Committee Chairman Ronald Gertson, said that his group is “officially neutral” on the order.
“It may come as a surprise to a number of folks, based on the media that this thing has generated, that we’re not here to stand against this emergency order. It is, however, [our] position that the emergency order may not fully meet the standard of demonstrating an imminent threat to human health and safety,” said Gertson.
According to its website, the Colorado Water Issues Committee “works to ensure adequate and reliable supplies of water are available from the Colorado River to irrigate the area’s rice fields, regardless of weather conditions.”
Gertson went on to state that even without an emergency order, it is “highly unlikely” that any of the downstream producers would request water from the river authority right now. He added that the canal systems downstream are “really not in a condition to receive the water and distribute it efficiently at this time.”
Despite these issues, Gertson appeared optimistic and expressed a desire for TCEQ to put a new water management plan in place by the end of the year. “We’re hopeful that by preserving the maximum amount of water in storage between now and the next crop season, that would set us up for receiving the maximum amount of water next year,” he said.
The water management plan dictates the procedures that the river authority must follow concerning the water in the lakes. According to Commissioner Toby Baker, the plan currently in place, dating from 2010, is “deficient.”
The river authority submitted a proposed water management plan update in October and is awaiting TCEQ’s response. Andrea Morrow, a spokesperson for the commission, said she does not know if or when her organization will approve the proposal, but it plans to release a notice for a forthcoming public input process in the coming weeks.
Disclosure: The Lower Colorado River Authority is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.