As directed by the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality (TCEQ), Judge William G. Newchurch staged a public hearing Monday, Feb. 17, to gather comments and unruffle feathers of Colorado River stakeholders.
Judge Newchurch sought to bring a bit or order to the issue after an overcrowded TCEQ meeting last week erupted into heated exchanges between supporters and opponents of a proposal that would withhold water from most downstream farmers for the third year in a row.
The Lower Colorado River Authority(LCRA) requested TCEQ approve a drought emergency order to withhold the water from farmers this year if the combined storage of lakes Travis and Buchanan, the region’s water reservoirs, is less than 1.1 million acre-feet at or about midnight on March 1.
Representatives of lower basin water stakeholders, including rice farmers, conservationists and official representing communities along the river from Bastrop to as far south as Bay City, testified they understood the need to conserve water during periods of drought, but complained at the meeting last week that they were being unfairly burdened to give up water use from the river while stakeholders in Central Texas were allowed to continue using water in excessive amounts, specifically to water lawns and wash cars.
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"Please don't shut off the Colorado river at Longhorn dam," Kirby Brown asked TCEQ Commissioners. "We respectfully ask the commission to reject the elevated triggers as requested and instead utilize the 2012 emergency order and response to the decision."
Brown, a wildlife biologist for Ducks Unlimited, said he was wearing two hats, representing stakeholders interested in conservation and the preservation of wetlands for waterfowl and also representing a coalition of communities and farmers in the lower basin that have joined together to petition the state to spread the burden of conservation on parties in both the lower and upper basin.
Trigger level too high
Brown argued against setting the new trigger level at 1.1 million acre feet. He pointed out that a better trigger level would be the same 850,000 acre-feet as required in both 2012 and 2013, which he said was adequate to meet water restriction needs caused by the ongoing drought.
"What we find unacceptable is the continued politicization of the issue by upper basin stakeholders and the placement of all sacrifice on the lower basin. There is absolutely no credible scientific justification to raise the trigger point to 1.1 million acre feet. How can LCRA argue that Austin will run out of drinking water if people are still allowed to water lawns and maintain golf courses throughout the year? They even continue to allow unnecessary watering of dormant winter lawns," Brown argued.
Brown, fellow coalition member Ronald Gertson, and other members of the Lower Colorado River Basin Coalition expressed concern at the hearing that the state realizes this is not a fight just between rice farmers and water users of Central Texas. He says communities all across the lower basin are suffering from economic hardships and the difficulties of dealing with the drought.
"There are two major areas of concern for me," testified Myron Hess, who manages the Texas Water Program in the Austin office of the National Wildlife Federation. "The first is the environmental flow impact and the second one is the breadth of the order. With respect to environmental flows, we are only talking about continuing flows adequate to support the survival of fish and wildlife resources, not about levels adequate for fish and wildlife to thrive. We are only concerned about preserving our fishing heritage."
Hess said he would like to ensure adequate language in any emergency order passed to guarantee a continued fresh water flow from the highland lakes to protect the survival of fish and wildlife resources in the delicate Matagorda Bay system.
A statement presented by the Lower Colorado River Basin Coalition claimed the current LCRA emergency order proposal would stop interruptible water discharged from Longhorn Dam for agriculture and for environmental flows for the river and bays. That cut-off would not only devastate the already beleaguered rice industry, but also would put critical stress on businesses and industry, and would potentially damage the environment.
Members of the coalition said, in spite of only having two days to prepare testimony from a variety of expert witnesses, they appreciated the opportunity to address the administrative judge at the hearing.
Judge Newchurch is scheduled to provide his recommendations to TCEQ Commissioners late this week and the commission is expected to meet again and rule on the LCRA emergency order request during a session scheduled Feb. 26.