Texas rice farmers will have to wait a few more days before they find out whether or not they will have a chance to receive any irrigation water from the Colorado River this year.
That's after commissioners of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) delayed taking action on a temporary emergency drought order request Wednesday (Feb. 12) that would have, if approved, shut off water for irrigation for a third straight year.
The decision came after commissioners listened to several hours of testimony from a packed chamber of passionate stakeholders and members of local governments, industry, special interest groups and the general public.
At issue was whether commissioners would ratify, alter or deny a controversial Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) emergency request to further restrict water releases from the Highland Lakes by raising the combined minimum lake level threshold from 850,000-acre feet to 1.1 million acre feet in an effort to ensure that Central Texas 'firm' customers, including the City of Austin and surrounding communities, would have enough water this summer for essential use.
Following long hours of testimony from the large group attending the proceedings, the commission referred the issue to a state administrative law judge, Judge William G. Newchurch from the State Office of Administrative Hearings, who was charged to conduct a mediation hearing with qualified stakeholders and return his recommendations to the full TCEQ Commission by Feb. 21.
The multi-year drought and a forecast that calls for little relief in the months ahead has fueled concerns across much of Texas, which, like their Western counterparts, is facing an escalating problem of too much demand and too little water.
The 600-mile Colorado River, which starts in West Texas and flows southeast to Matagorda Bay on the coast, feeds a series of Highland Lakes including Lake Buchanan, Inks Lake, Lake LBJ, Lake Travis, and Lake Austin before traveling south through Bastrop, Smithville, La Grange, Columbus, Wharton and Bay City and emptying into the bay.
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LCRA is charged with managing the river's resources and provides water to a number of cities, industry users, water cooperatives, irrigation districts and agricultural users all along the river, according to a state approved water plan. LCRA customers are divided into 'firm' customers, like city water districts/users, and downstream interruptible users. LCRA is also charged with providing an environmental flow for the health and protection of Matagorda Bay. But in times of emergency, like a drought, LCRA can deny water access to some users in an effort to provide continuing water supplies to firm customers, but only after seeking a temporary emergency order that must be approved by TCEQ.
Multiple years of Texas water shortages
In an effort to address water shortages, LCRA asked for and was granted emergency orders from TCEQ in both 2012 and 2013, but the lake level threshold, or trigger at which point irrigation water was withheld from downstream rice farmers, was set at 850,000-acre feet. Much of the controversy over the emergency filed with TECQ this past December called for that threshold to take effect when combined lake levels reached 1.1 million acre feet.
LCRA staff recommended the threshold change to their board of directors in December, based upon what they called increased demand by firm users and a pessimistic weather forecast that offers little hope of substantial lake inflows in the months ahead.
But the change was not well accepted by LCRA board members. Many of them argued that better alternatives are available. In the end, the board narrowly approved adopting the emergency order 8-7, along with its increased threshold. That was subsequently sent forward to TCEQ for final approval and implementation before March 1, a date traditionally used to release irrigation allotments to downstream users.
Before the full TCEQ Commission was presented with the request this week, however, newly appointed TCEQ Executive Director Richard Hyde signed off on the request, pending final approval by the full board of commissioners.
"The increased trigger levels and decreased irrigation supplies being allowed for in this order are not realistic and do not treat all LCRA customers equitably," testified Daniel Berglund Wednesday. Berglund has been growing rice in Matagorda and Wharton counties for the past 25 years and is also the Chairman of the Texas Rice Growers Legislative Group and serves on the Colorado Water Issues Committee.
Mitch Thames, representing the Bay City Chamber of Commerce, testified that he was under the impression the purpose of the emergency order was to ensure firm customers had enough water to survive times of drought, saying that was the mandate for the adoption of an emergency request that would vary from the state approved water plan.
"Apparently I came here with the wrong speech prepared. I thought this was an issue about imminent health and safety. What I have heard today is an imminent threat on the economy, on growth, housing, water rates, and appraised values of land [in Central Texas]. I didn't bring that speech, but we have been experiencing those same problems in the lower basin as well," he said.
Ronald Gertson, a rice farmer and Chairman of the Colorado Water Issues Committee, told TCEQ Commissioners the emergency order requested by LCRA puts the responsibility of conservation solely on downstream users.
"We are those folks being asked to bear 100 percent of the burden of this drought," he testified.
Many others testified in support of the LCRA request
An extended day of public testimony also included supporters of the emergency request. Officials representing a number of Central Texas cities testified that drought conditions and falling lake levels have created a number of burdens including providing adequate water to residents and ample water to fight fires.
Business representatives from the Highland Lakes area testified they have lost millions in revenue as marinas, restaurants, and boat ramps have closed and recreational traffic has all but ceased to exist.
The Mayor of Leander, Chris Fielder, told commissioners his city has invested over $3.5 million on a new water intake system required because of low lake levels and says if lake water continues to recede, drought level costs could easily exceed $10 million in the near future.
Supporting rice farmers and downstream users, representatives of the Texas Farm Bureau, Ducks Unlimited and the Sierra Club also testified that restricting flow downstream not only hurts rice farmers, but penalizes rural communities and provides devastating damage to water fowl, wildlife and the delicate Matagorda Bay system.
Gertson told commissioners that almost all of the arguments presented by supporters of the emergency request addressed problems associated with the economy, and he said those types of problems are beyond the responsibility and charge of TCEQ.
He also testified that the water management plan originally adopted by TCEQ provides several triggers before an emergency order can be passed; one of those triggers in the plan involves curtailing water for downstream interruptible users but also requires firm users to curtail water usage by 20 percent.
Gertson says rice farmers have been penalized with shouldering all the burden of the drought and conservation efforts in Central Texas have failed to curtail usage by the required amount to meet the drought emergency.