The Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) Board of Directors, on an 8-7 vote Tuesday, Nov. 20, agreed to ask the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to approve an emergency drought request that would cut off Highland Lakes water to most rice farmers in 2014 if the combined storage of lakes Buchanan and Travis is less than 1.1 million acre feet on March 1 next year.

If TCEQ approves the emergency request as expected, it will represent the third year in a row many rice farmers have been denied irrigation allotments or limited to partial deliveries, a development that has financially stressed many rice operations and has caused serious economic problems for rural communities in Wharton, Matagorda and Colorado counties.

In addition to the difficulties cutting off water creates for the agriculture industry, wildlife biologists warn it will mean another year of stress for migrating and native waterfowl that depend on rice fields as habitat.

"We understand how painful this drought has been from one end of the Colorado River basin to the other, but we have to protect the drinking water supply for more than a million Central Texans," LCRA Board Chairman Timothy Timmerman, who voted in favor of the emergency request, said during the meeting. "Today's decision was difficult, but it does just that."

Several water users attended the meeting Tuesday, but like LCRA's Board of Directors, they were divided on the issue. Some argued that drinking water for Central Texas residents takes priority over agriculture and wildlife and that five years of drought conditions warrant the emergency action.

Others who addressed the board argued that restricting water from lower Colorado water users is an unreasonable action that favors Austin water users at the expense of others, many of whom have been using water from the river to sustain life and food production for generations.

In a meeting earlier this fall, Ducks Unlimited Wildlife Biologist Kirby Brown told LCRA officials that if lower river water users are required to curtail water use then Austin water uses should also be limited from watering lawns and washing cars.

“Every individual, every occupation, every community depends on water, and there is presently not enough to meet all demands,” Brown told the board in September. “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.”

Program penalizes agriculture

Brown suggested that current water conservation programs penalize agriculture and the environment while allowing other water users to continue using water irresponsibly.

But LCRA General Manager Becky Motal said in addition to limiting water to farmers downriver, the action taken by the Board Tuesday, if approved by TCEQ, will require firm customers such as cities to limit homeowners and businesses to watering a maximum of once a week if combined storage is below 1.1 million acre-feet on March 1. Firm customers include cities in Central Texas that depend on water from the Highland Lakes.

Also at issue, many of those opposing the LCRA action say they are confused why LCRA staff has increased the combined acre-feet minimum for 2014 compared to the minimum set the previous two years. In similar actions in 2012 and 2013, LCRA asked the TCEQ for permission to limit release for agriculture irrigation if the combined storage in lakes Buchanan and Travis was below 775,000-acre feet and 920,000 acre-feet respectively. This year's minimum for release of irrigation water was set at 1.1 million in order to avoid dropping storage capacity to what LCRA called historic lows.

"Many are asking why the minimum storage level was increased nearly 10 percent over last year. It seems that the move is just another method of limiting irrigation water to agriculture and the environment," said Kirby Brown who attended Tuesday's meeting.

LCRA claims the storage trigger was set at 1.1 million acre-feet for the 2014 irrigation season because, even with water being cut off to most farmers for two consecutive years, the lakes have failed to recover significantly and remain near historic lows, a statement that some at the meeting said they believed was "an exaggerated truth."

"It was devastating when irrigation water was withheld in 2012, and this year's curtailment added insult to industry. But a third year of not having the water farmers need to keep their operations fluid may be the last straw for them," he added. "Up until now the agriculture community has taken the irrigation limitations in stride, though a lack of water has caused extreme problems for them and the communities they serve. But three years in a row may be asking too much and I imagine we will see a more united opposition to a move that, for all practical purposes, represents an assault on the industry and on rural communities that is both crippling and potentially destructive."

Unfair limitations

Brown and other environmental and wildlife advocates charge LCRA of imposing unfair and devastating limitations on agriculture and the environment while allowing Central Texas water users an exemption from the same type of water limitations.

“Water is part of the foundation for the basin-wide regional economy, and the fact is there is not enough water at present for all uses and users,” said Brown. “However, it is unconscionable to cut off water for food production – which in turn provides vital habitat for millions of migratory birds and supports a multi-million-dollar, natural-resource-based economy – while allowing non-essential uses such as lawn watering, car washing and filling swimming pools to continue. We are all in this together, and we must all conserve our limited resources and seek sensible compromises in water allocation.”

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Brown went on to say that in addition, farmers are facing an uncertain future because of the possibility of changing farm legislation.

“Unless there is a dramatic change in the next farm bill, which Congress has yet to pass, no disaster assistance will be available next year. A third year without water for rice will be devastating to the $374-million rice industry in the lower basin, and that will ripple across our regional economy,” he added. 

But he remains hopeful the TCEQ will hold a higher standard for the importance of food production, especially in Texas, an agricultural leader, and will address the need of both agriculture and the state's environment before taking any action that could damage both industries.

“The state law is clear: You cannot ignore agricultural needs when other alternatives exist. We are hopeful TCEQ will recognize that other alternatives do exist and deny this proposal,” he said.

Brown added that he doesn’t believe LCRA met the threshold for public health and safety in their request either.

“The suggested level is untenable, and common-sense alternatives proposed by rice farmers provided reasonable compromises for balanced basin-wide solutions,” he explained. “Alternatives proposed by some of the board members to reduce a small amount of water in the constant level lakes, such as Lake Austin, and implement greater conservation measures were also ignored.”

Voting in favor of an emergency request for drought relief were Chair Timothy Timmerman and directors Thomas Michael Martine, Vernon E. "Buddy" Schrader, Franklin Scott Spears Jr., Jett J. Johnson, John M. Franklin, Raymond A. "Ray" Gill Jr. and Robert "Bobby" Lewis. Voting against the relief were directors John C. Dickerson III, J. Scott Arbuckle, Steve K. Balas, Lori A. Berger, Pamela Jo "PJ" Ellison, Sandra Wright Kibby, and Michael G. McHenry.

Under the drought relief approved Tuesday, if combined storage is equal to or greater than 1.1 million acre-feet on March 1, about 130,000 acre-feet of Highland Lakes water would be available to the four irrigation operations. For every 100,000 acre-feet of combined storage greater than 1.1 million, the amount available to farmers would increase by 24,000 acre-feet. This would be limited to a maximum of about 202,000 acre-feet available to farmers if combined storage is 1.4 million acre-feet or more on March 1.

Water available to farmers is measured downstream, where it is diverted from the river by the irrigation operations in Matagorda, Wharton and Colorado counties. Approximately 20 percent more would need to be sent from the Highland Lakes to make up for losses as the water travels downstream.

LCRA will now forward its request related to water for irrigation to TCEQ, which must approve any changes to the state-approved Water Management Plan used for operating lakes Travis and Buchanan.

 

Also of interest:

Texas faces water shortage without water plan

From rice to riches

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