New plan would lessen LCRA obligation to release Highland Lakes water

New plan would lessen LCRA obligation to release Highland Lakes water

Posted: 3:03 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015

By Asher Price – American-Statesman Staff

Reinforcing the clout of Austin and other Central Texas lakeside communities, a new water management plan that could get state approval Wednesday would make it less likely for downriver rice farmers and wildlife to get pulses of freshwater from the Highland Lakes in coming years.

If you think of the Colorado River as a car, and the Lower Colorado River Authority as its driver, then the water management plan is the driver’s manual.

Over the last few drought-ridden years, the LCRA, a nonprofit utility that doles out water from the river for more than a million Central Texans, has asked for — and won — emergency permission to cease releases for most downriver farmers and environmental needs.

The new plan would essentially enshrine the cutoffs under the sort of dry conditions that scientists say are increasingly likely to plague Central Texas.

“The plan is culmination of many years’ work and is significantly more protective of (municipal and industrial) water than previous plans,” said Greg Meszaros, head of the Austin Water Utility. “That’s an absolute must.”

Farmers pay far less for water than do cities or industrial customers, who pay a premium so their water is available even in drought conditions. City and industrial customers typically pay $175 per acre-foot of water they use; farmers pay less than $50 per acre-foot for their LCRA water.

Jealous of their water — like the kid at the cafeteria table with one arm hooked defensively around her tray — and horrified at the 2011 debacle in which 141 billion gallons of water were released downstream to farmers just as a record-breaking drought took hold, Austin and other premium customers have successfully pressed the river authority to protect their interests.

Downriver, farmers, fishermen and environmental groups appear resigned to the new water management plan, playing the role of the kid who looks on hungrily with mouth half-open.

“We are generally not happy with this, but it is probably the best we can do right now,” said Kirby Brown, co-chairman of the Lower Colorado River Basin Coalition, an alliance of farmers, school districts, hunting and fishing guides, birding groups and nature tourism businesses.

The coalition’s aim seems to be to build goodwill with Austin and other politically powerful, premium customers as it presses for more upriver water conservation, enforcement of drought-period watering restrictions and the construction of new water supplies — especially a reservoir under construction in Wharton County.

“We hope that the recent drought has taught the water users in the entire basin the need to truly conserve this precious resource and develop a better understanding of each other’s reliance on our shared water resources,” Brown said.

Translation: Premium customers should help pay for the downriver reservoir, which the LCRA says will benefit the entire basin because it will mean fewer releases from the Highland Lakes.

Environmentalists are similarly lukewarm about the new management plan.

“We’re not excited about it from an environmental protection perspective,” said Myron Hess, who oversees Texas water for the National Wildlife Federation. “But it’s the best we can get under the circumstances. After years of drought, what we have to do from here is develop additional supplies that help us address shortages for the environment.”

“In terms of the big picture,” Hess continued, “there’s less water for the environment in the new plan than in the old one.”

That’s a reflection of the growing thirst for city and industrial water as the region rises in population: Lakes Travis and Buchanan now serve as the chief drinking supply for than a million Central Texans, and they serve as linchpins to a regional tourism and recreation economy.

“No one benefits from chronically low lake levels,” said Kevin Klein, a spokesman for the Central Texas Water Coalition, which represents communities and businesses ringing the lakes.

In 2014, for the second year in a row, the LCRA board asked for permission from state environmental commissioners to reduce the amount of water it releases during a six-week period in the late spring for the spawning needs of the blue sucker, a heavy-bodied, river-bottom-oriented fish named for its downward-pointed, sucker-like mouth.

While the river authority will continue to have a baseline water set-aside for environmental needs, the new plan, building on new scientific know-how about drought in the basin, will give the LCRA “more operational flexibility and be more responsive to what’s happening on the ground,” said John Hofmann, who oversees water matters for the river authority.

The new water management plan, he said, “really postured (the LCRA) to be more protective in aggressive drought conditions.”

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