The relatively new Lower Colorado River Basin Coalition was formed to push back against Highland Lakes stakeholders that, in the midst of a long-running drought, have sought to raise the trigger point for release downstream to 1.4 million acre-feet, a level that Bastrop County Judge Paul Pape says would have grave ramifications for Bastrop County and rice farmers in Matagorda County.
The point of the coalition is not to deplete the already-low lake levels in lakes Travis and Buchanan — the current 850,000 acre-feet release point is fine, says Pape, who serves on the coalition’s executive committee. However, higher release points could result in a diminished supply of water for the Colorado River running through Bastrop County and rice farmers as well as create the potential for flooding downstream when heavy rainfall finally occurs.
“Those lakes are at historic low levels, and we wouldn’t even think about asking for water this year with Lake Buchanan as low as it is,” Pape said. “But lakes Travis and Buchanan were never meant to be constant level lakes. They are meant to go low and high.
“When the lakes are full, and you get 20 inches of rain, the water comes down the river and floods us. Right now there is enough water for people to shower and drink. The rice farmers haven’t had water released downstream to them in three years, and that’s up to nature. But we don’t want to go too far and be too restrictive.”
Benefits of lower trigger points include the likelihood that water will be released downstream through Bastrop County, ensuring the river remains healthy and a tourist attraction that gives the city character, which contributed to the council’s decision to join.
“Our city’s interest in this is that we need to keep up our river,” said Bastrop Mayor Ken Kesselus. “It’s the heart of our city, and it’s been here since the beginning. Our logo incorporates the river.”
The city will pay a $500 membership fee to join the organization.
Pape said the coalition was pleased to have Bastrop on board.
“I’m excited to have the city of Bastrop join us in the coalition to protect the Lower Colorado River Basin’s water interests.,” Pape said. “It just shows that we are all in this together.”
The coalition held its first meeting on June 9, where it elected its officers and executive committee. Kirby Brown, executive director of Ducks Unlimited, is chairman; rice farmer and ex-state representative Robby Cook is co-chair; Mitch Thames is treasurer and Robert Howard is secretary.
Bastrop County representation on the board includes Pape and Mark Rose of Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative and former Lower Colorado River Authority general manager.
Ensuring the health of the rice industry in Texas is important for myriad reasons, Pape stressed, noting that without irrigation releases, water flowing down the Colorado River is almost all treated wastewater effluent from Austin.
“When the rice farming industry is eliminated, there will be little reason for interruptible water releases,” Pape said. “We in Bastrop County, and everybody else who benefits from those irrigation releases, will bear the consequences.”