It may only be a reprieve, but a surprise decision passed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Wednesday (Feb. 26) represents something of a win for agriculture and rural Texas after commissioners failed to set a specific water level trigger for the Highland Lakes.
The Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) Board of Directors approved an emergency request in December seeking authority to cut off water deliveries downstream unless combined lake levels were at least 1.1 million acre feet. It was the third such emergency request submitted by LCRA since the drought hit Texas substantially in 2011.
In previous emergency requests, however, a trigger level of 850,000 acre feet was established, meaning water to rice farmers and others down river would be cut off automatically until lake levels were to rise to the minimum trigger level.
In the latest emergency order sent to TCEQ, that trigger level changed from 850,000 acre feet to 1.1 million acre feet, a measure narrowly passed by the LCRA board by a vote of 8-7.
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The change in the trigger level was considered a victory for LCRA's “firm water” customers in Central Texas, including the cities of Austin, Burnett, Marble Falls and others, that had voiced concern that continuing drought conditions and historically low lake levels threatened drinking water supplies and created hardships and hazards for such things as fighting fires and flushing toilets.
During a TCEQ meeting Feb. 12, where the Commission was expected to approve the emergency order along with raising the water trigger, heated debate erupted between groups supporting and opposed to raising the trigger level. Instead of approving the request, the Commission referred the issue to a state administrative law judge who was asked to hold a hearing with stakeholders and make recommendations to TCEQ by Feb. 21.
When those recommendations were received by the Commission late last week, they included a number of changes. William G. Newchurch and Travis Vickery, administrative law judges for the State Office of Administrative Hearings, met with stakeholders and in their recommendation proposed the trigger level be raised to 1.4 million acre feet, higher than the 1.1 million AF requested by LCRA. The written recommendation also called for an automatic renewal to further protect the water levels of the lakes to ensure adequate water for firm water customers in Central Texas.
The judges’ ruling was poorly received by rice farmers and communities in the lower Colorado River basin, however, who argued they fully understood and agreed to emergency action to conserve water for necessary uses during times of drought, but they argued that for the previous two years they were required to sacrifice by failing to plant nearly 50 percent of their rice acres two years in a row while Central Texas users, especially in Austin, continued to water lawns, maintain swimming pools and irrigate golf course greens. They argued conservation should be a shared sacrifice by all water users and not just lower basin communities.
Difference of opinion
Ross Crow, a representative of the City of Austin, told Commissioners Wednesday that meteorologists predict the current drought could easily last several more years.
"We are experiencing a drought of unknown duration and record intensities. Extraordinary situations call for extraordinary measures. How long will this drought last? That uncertainty calls for a conservative approach," Crow testified.
Trish Carls, representing Highland Lakes Firm Water Cooperative, told Commissioners an emergency order is required to keep Central Texas cities from running out of water.
"We have got to get this emergency order passed. Without it, under the 2010 Water Plan, water would be released from storage and the combined storage of the lakes would go down below the record level of 600,000 feet...and water intakes would become inoperable," Carls told Commissioners. "Emergency levels do exist."
Myron Hess with the National Wildlife Federation testified that his organization did not question the need to limit the release of water downstream in times of drought, but said the only decision that needs to be made is whether to limit the release of water and has nothing to do with setting minimum lake levels, an area he says is laid out in the state water plan.
To the surprise of many, Lyn Clancy, legal counsel for LCRA, testified before the Commission and said LCRA did not support the changes in the emergency order as recommended by Administrative Judges Newchurch and Vickery.
Clancy said the LCRA Board stands by its original emergency order request and believes a water trigger of 1.1 million acre feet is sufficient to meets the needs of the current emergency. She further stated that LCRA does not support an automatic renewal of the emergency order once expired.
After additional testimony from both sides of the issue, commissioners discussed with staff their recommendations and after further comment, the Commission approved the emergency order request that will limit the release of irrigation water in the interim, but the Board ordered the striking of any specific trigger level and said they would revisit the issue in the months ahead.
The move was contrary to many of the recommendations made by the administrative judges, but Commissioners expressed concern that limited action on emergency requests and other variances from the state's approved water plan was better than setting a precedent that could mar efforts to update the water plan in the months ahead.
What the action means is that rice farmers will not be receiving any irrigation for the third straight year in a row as long as an emergency has been declared as a result of the drought and if rains fail to improve inflows and lake levels. But the action also leaves open the option to resume water releases anytime the combined storage levels reach a point when a drought no longer threatens the ability of firm users to access water from the lakes.
Officials on both sides of the issue were traveling back from the Austin meeting and not available for comment immediately following the decision. But while the Commission's ruling represents a win for Central Texas communities who are concerned over securing lake water for drinking and emergency services, it also provides hope for lower basin customers and agricultural interests across the state who fear large urban cities have the political clout to change water use to favor their interest at the expense of rural communities and farmers and ranchers who grow the nation's food supply.