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.


Also of interest:

Climatologist, Water Development Board see continued drought

Long-range weather outlook for Southwest is not optimistic

Rural Texans unite against water curtailment