In spite of late summer, early fall rains across Texas, the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) is petitioning the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to allow them to cut off Colorado River inflows to Matagorda Bay, a measure the Authority claims is needed in order to meet the water demands of its many city, industry and agriculture customers.
But a conservation biologist, appearing before the LCRA Board last month, warned that cutting off river inflows into the fragile Matagorda Bay system should not be allowed because of the potential negative impact to wildlife and the environment that would follow.
Ducks Unlimited Conservation outreach biologist Kirby Brown told LCRA board members during a September meeting that water conservation measures currently in place are not adequate. He suggested that current water conservation programs penalize agriculture and the environment while allowing other water users to continue using water irresponsibly.
“Every individual, every occupation, every community depends on water, and there is presently not enough to meet all demands,” Brown told the board. “The reality of the immediate situation is that all users should conserve equally and as much as possible. In the longer view, we must look at all the triggers for water conservation. The ones we have now are clearly coming up short, and system wide water conservation is the only immediate solution.”
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In a report issued last month, LCRA warned that while Sept. rains provided an additional 20,000 acre-feet of water to Lakes Buchanan and Travis, the two largest reservoirs managed by the Authority, both lakes remain at about 33 percent of capacity, and without substantially more rain in the weeks ahead, additional water restrictions will be necessary.
LCRA says the two lakes provide water for more than a million central Texans as well as businesses, industries and the environment throughout the lower Colorado River basin. But the Authority warns that only rainfall and inflows produced by that rainfall can fill the lakes, and much more rain is needed.
As a result, LCRA filed an application with TCEQ Sept. 26 seeking relief from requirements to send water from Highland Lakes to Matagorda Bay. The state-approved Water Management Plan requires Highland Lakes water be sent under certain conditions for the bay’s environmental health, and any variance from that plan would require the state's approval.
But Brown says such a move is counter productive and would adversely affect the environment and wildlife that depend on those inflows. He says the board decision to cutoff inflows is a bad approach and further claims better conservation by city governments is needed to avoid such damaging action.
“There continues to be a lack of understanding of the situation by our communities and the public. Cities use anemic water-conservation policies that continue to allow non-essential uses of water while criticizing and politicizing agricultural and environmental water uses and crying out that it’s a ‘critters’ versus people debate. That’s an oversimplified and ineffective approach to the problem, and it needs to be corrected,” Brown told the Board.
He said shrimpers, farmers, fishing guides and birding eco-tourism businesses are directly tied to ecosystem services, especially the freshwater supply.
Singling out specific water users unfair
Brown encouraged Texans to remember that water is required for all life and livelihoods, and that all users must take part in conserving this limited resource.
Brown argues that the general public, especially residents living in urban areas, need to understand that watering the lawn to keep it green and washing the car are luxuries we may not be able to afford during times of serious drought and water shortage.
“How is watering the lawn weekly or keeping golf courses and business grounds green a matter of public health and safety?” Brown asked the board. “If the public doesn’t start thinking along those lines and share water conservation responsibilities equally, then we are going to debate and argue the issue while the supply continues to dwindle and limit our economy.”
Over the last two years LCRA asked for and was granted authority to limit water use by rice farmers, resulting in lost rice acres and less production. But Brown says lake levels continue to drop and as much as 75 percent of water used in urban areas is "dumped on the ground" or used for other non-essential purposes.
“Cities and communities, which are justly worried about their economies in the face of limited water, are calling for halts in environmental and agricultural uses while not taking a hard look in the mirror at their non-essential uses,” Brown said. “Cities must recognize their water-conservation policies are not working and make responsible changes."
Earlier this year, citing drought problems and low lake levels, LCRA Board Chairman Timothy Timmerman says the Board is not planning on lowering lake levels any further.
“Our Board is looking at innovative ways to expand and extend our water supply, but the idea of lowering the lakes is not and has not been a serious consideration,” said Timmerman.
More on the effects of the LRCA moves to restrict water.
More conservation is needed by all users
But Brown said cutting off inflows to the bay and taxing rice farmers and rural economies should not be one of those ways.
"The cutoff of water to rice farmers is crushing the rural economy of three coastal counties on the lower Colorado River and creating a food-supply deficit for more than 600,000 ducks on the Texas Mid-Coast. Environmental flows currently being considered for cutoff are necessary for the habitat that supports 60 to 80 percent of the continental redhead duck population and critical fisheries," he warned.
Concerning birding and wildlife, Brown said Texas waterfowl hunting alone provides more than $204 million in annual economic input, and annual revenues from wildlife tourism, including hunting, fishing and wildlife watching in Texas top $5 billion. He says cutting off water supplies will hurt the Texas economy and it still continues to fall short of addressing current and critical water needs for the future.
“Ducks Unlimited understands that there is simply not enough water to meet all needs at present, and natural resources and downstream economies should and have shared in restrictions and conservation measures,” he added. “Common-sense water-allocation policy is required in these times. The luxuries of lush, green lawns and squeaky-clean cars each week are relics of a bygone era of conspicuous consumption possible in times of greater rainfall. Now our ecosystems and the economies they support must come first.”
By their own admission, when LCRA released 8,684 acre-feet from lakes Travis and Buchanan in September to meet some of the requirements from earlier in the year, and salinity levels in the Bay’s delta dropped from 33 parts per thousand (ppt) to less than 28 ppt.
Scientific studies have determined that levels greater than 30 ppt may not be suitable for oysters, juvenile fish and other species in the bay.
But Brown warns that cutting off inflows, as requested by LCRA, will quickly push salinity rates much higher than allowable to maintain a healthy bay system and will penalize the wildlife and industries that depend on a healthy ecosystem.
LCRA says if enough rains and subsequent flow comes into the Highland Lakes in the near future, they could be required to release up to an additional 5,834 acre-feet for the bay by the end of the year unless the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) grants their request to waive the requirement.
LCRA reports they have been working with its industrial and municipal customers on water conservation measures. A published LCRA advisory claims the water authority is urging all users in the region to use water wisely and conserve wherever possible.
"Everyone should strictly follow the watering schedules set by local water providers. These generally limit the time of day and days of the week that you can water your lawn and landscaping with a sprinkler system," the advisory suggests.