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.

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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.